It makes perfect sense for Leonardo DiCaprio to play The Great Gatsby. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate American actor for the job of portraying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s emblematic, epically conflicted Roaring Twenties millionaire. But this is a Baz Luhrmann vehicle, the director’s first feature film since his Blunder from Down Under, Australia, way back in 2008, and frankly we had our doubts about Luhrmann before the film even started.
Gatsby allays those fears successfully for the first hour of its 142-minute running time — it’s too long, a common failing of would-be tent poles — but the weight, of the concept as well as of the literary property itself, proves too much to carry. It’s visually expressive but emotionally suffocated, despite the best efforts of DiCaprio (curiously, channeling Orson Welles as compulsive party host Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (a bit overmatched as reluctant femme fatale Daisy Buchanan), Tobey Maguire as the easily flabbergasted narrator/conscience Nick Carraway, Joel Edgerton as Daisy’s racist playboy husband Tom, and a regiment of extras.
Luhrmann’s customary hyperactive visuals are the best he’s ever made, an enormous panorama of antique-postcard dreamscapes in 3D that actually works. Gatsby’s West Egg mansion looks like Disneyland — everything looks like Disneyland. Sooner or later, however, we have to get down to people talking to each other in a room somewhere. That’s always been tough for Luhrmann. The hot-day hotel-suite showdown between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan is surprisingly weak. From the trailer we expected an anachronistic, tune-filled musical soufflé à la Moulin Rouge!, and it has some of that, but tries for more and doesn’t quite make it. Citizen Gatsby gets his Rosebud moment (his Sunset Boulevard moment, too) and the party moves on. Poor, baffled Nick is a true believer. We are not.