Let’s just be upfront about it: Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is not an example of great cinema. It revels in its lack of substance, which in and of itself might not be an issue, but it’s also strangely and unnecessarily cluttered by a series of curious additions to Fitzgerald’s novel. The main addition is a frame narrative that lands Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in psychiatric care, writing his memoir (aka the novel we’re now watching on screen). The intention behind this seems to be a desire to include as much of Fitzgerald’s prose as possible, so we get both a voice-over narration and actual text that appears on screen at key moments in the film. If you were concerned about missing subtext, you can be free of those fears now.
These inclusions signal the film’s biggest problems. It is entirely interested in aesthetics and visual splendor rather than any of the thematic content of its namesake, to the point that it often feels as if the movie assumes its audience isn’t going to be paying any attention to the dialogue. Gatsby will grimace and Nick’s voice will blare through the speakers, “Gatsby seemed upset, or maybe he just had indigestion.” Much of this highlights, unintentionally, the great differences between film and literature. In Luhrmann’s movie, the audience has almost no chance to develop a connection with the material or its characters because the movie so frequently tells them everything that has happened, is happening, or might happen soon on screen.
The narrative additions also create real problems for the pacing. The movie races through its first hour or so, feeling almost frenzied as it tries to get through as much exposition as possible. The problem resurfaces for the last half-hour, making for an awkward ride.
It’s a troubled film that misunderstands a lot about what might make for a successful adaptation of a novel. But there is, despite all of this, something strangely alluring about it. There is a weird charm to its total embrace of aesthetic over emotional or thematic content. There’s obviously fun to be had in watching Gatsby’s outrageous parties rendered with such peculiar and loving detail, but its quieter moments also have an inviting aura.
These quieter moments, which comprise the middle 45 minutes or hour of the film, are also its most successful. After all of the characters are introduced and the first big party is vividly depicted, “The Great Gatsby” settles into a much more endearing tempo. Its scenes have more room to breathe, it starts enjoying itself without extreme ostentation, and its visuals are given the opportunity to be legitimately pretty instead of simply overpowering. It accepts the idea that it can be a film and not just a rollercoaster, and, despite all of its overwrought sentimentality and lacking thematic coherence, it becomes earnestly enjoyable.
This sequence, again, only lasts for about 45 minutes before things start ramping up again and the film leaves its viewers behind. So ultimately, the movie is precisely what was anticipated. It is sheer spectacle cinema, with all of the entertainment and airheadedness that might entail. But if that middle section proves anything, it’s that it is well-intentioned spectacle cinema. It doesn’t always count for much, but it counts for something.