Strictly in terms of plot, it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the 1925 novel about the title mystery man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who shows up at the ritzy end of Long Island. But it couldn’t be much farther away in tone from Fitzgerald’s famously balanced, plangent prose. Despite the solemn narration by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the style is all wild whip pans and fast cutting and undulating aerial shots that carry us from new money “West Egg” to old money “East Egg” and back, and sometimes all the way in to Manhattan.
Gatsby, a West Egger, throws decadent jazz-and-flapper parties in which he doesn’t usually participate. His neighbor and tenant Nick sees Gatsby gazing longingly at the “green light” across the bay, on the dock of the East Egg estate where Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives with her blueblood ape of a husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). Needless to say, there’s some history there.
I’ve always been fond of this yarn, with its fairy-tale backstory. Like many durable American fables, it’s rooted in seriously adolescent notions, about reinventing yourself and impressing the girl of your dreams with grand gesture, but what gives it its power was that Fitzgerald knew, first-hand, that the fix was in when it came to Gatsby’s dream of making himself acceptable to the old money class—if he’d simply wanted to be rich or famous, he could have managed it easily enough, but he wanted to be One Of Them. That he wanted this for, from his point of view, the most gallant and romantic of reasons mattered not at all.
Once you’ve accepted that this is Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, not Fitzgerald’s, you’re likely to feel that this is the most successful adaptation of the story. It’s highly uneven—in particular, it runs out of steam toward the end—but it’s more satisfying, overall, than the drab 1949 version, starring Alan Ladd, and much more than the plodding 1974 version starring Robert Redford, and this has at least as much to do with the leading man as it does with Luhrmann.
Neither Redford nor Ladd was the real problem with their respective productions; both did their level best with the part. But neither of them captured the subtly frantic, terrified side of Gatsby’s psychology like DiCaprio does. This makes it possible, as it usually isn’t, to find some pity for Daisy, to see how even life with the cloddish, philandering Tom might offer her more breathing space than Gatsby’s obsessive devotion.
Even more than this, though, for the story to be convincing, Gatsby must have a radiant glamour that transcends acting, or even beauty. In one of the book’s most famous passages, Nick describes Gatsby’s smile:
“He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”
When DiCaprio smiles into the camera here, he comes closer to capturing this quality than any previous Gatsby I’ve seen. Maybe it was just the 3-D.