As a caveat, I should state up front that I have not read The Great Gatsby since high school, a decade and a half ago. I remember liking all the rich and mysterious writing in F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal novel, and I think the paper I wrote on it went well, but if you're looking for in-depth analysis of how Baz Luhrmann's gaudy new film adaptation compares to the intricacies of the novel, you may need to look elsewhere. That said, I'm pretty sure Luhrmann's Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby are two very different things. Where Fitzgerald gives us a lyrical (but no less forceful for it) condemnation of a society ravaged by materialism, Luhrmann has created an opulent, tragic Horatio Alger tale of lost love. The excesses of Roaring Twenties New York high society are certainly pooh-poohed in the film, but they are swaddled in so much visual pop and frenetic beauty that the criticism barely registers. Too enamored of its own decadence, The Great Gatsby says a lot without saying much of anything.
Entering into a Baz Luhrmann film is always disorienting. His beginnings are hurried and frantic, the camera darting to and fro as we meet a jumble of people, the setting messily outlined. Well, OK, the technical beginning of Gatsby places us on the quiet, wintry grounds of a sanitarium where our narrator Nick Carraway (forever bland Tobey Maguire) has holed himself up, seeking treatment for alcoholism, anxiety, and the sort of despair that typically afflicts young literary men. That Luhrmann and his co-adapter Craig Pearce decided to tack this framing device onto Fitzgerald's story has already been grumbled about a fair bit, so I won't do much of that here, but the bleak look of the place, and the deadness in Nick's eyes as he relates this fabulous tale of secrets and sandcastles, only serves to heighten the awkward sense that we are supposed to long for the old West Egg days when really I don't think that's the point of the story at all. A little melancholy makes sense, time lost and all that, but these are not happy days being remembered. I suppose Luhrmann wanted to give Gatsby the same sad sweep of Moulin Rouge, which also begins with a character telling a story about entering a near-fantastical world and grandly losing love. It doesn't quite work here, though.