Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the novel is flashy, but stays true to text

As the director of films like “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet,” Baz Luhrmann is known more for his style than for substance, and that reputation certainly extends into his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

While style is Luhrmann’s forte, he may be stretching himself at points to keep up with the technology. There are moments throughout the film that seem as an attempt by Luhrmann to do something groundbreaking and innovative, as with its homage to Fitzgerald’s text through the creative use of typology, but it never quite hits the mark.

Overall, the choice to present the film in 3-D puts Gatsby distastefully aboard a frustrating bandwagon of movies needlessly released in 3-D. The film suffers moments of computer-generated unreality, but it shines during more old-school moments of actual set dressing.

The soundtrack is perhaps the film’s best feature, and the mixture of jazz age sounds complemented by modern artists like Jay-Z and Lana Del Ray are central to the film’s tone; however, as cool as the music choices are, they are less exciting for anyone who has followed the hype leading up to the film, as most of the songs have been teased or released online over the past few months.

Originally intended as a Christmas 2012 release, the film was pushed back to spring 2013, creating an extended release schedule, which only heightened the expectations for the adaptation. On the other hand, the film may have lost the edge its unique soundtrack and visual style may have otherwise earned for it due to this long wait. By the time many people entered a theater, they’d already heard the songs, already seen the trailers and the novelty had all but expired.

Fitzgerald’s novel is a fixture of high school English classes, and a favorite of many readers young and old. It stands out in the canon of American literature as a text that is as well regarded as literature as it is as a piece of popular culture. Any filmmaker adapting such a highly-lauded, highly-treasured and widely-read novel is taking a big risk, as the film will inevitably face heightened scrutiny.

Fitzgerald’s novel leaves much room for interpretation, and with a main character as enigmatic as Jay Gatsby, every potential interpreter is likely to create a different kind of story. In Luhrmann’s hands, the story of Gatsby becomes an American fairy tale, complete with a castle and a princess guarded by an evil dragon.

Substance-wise, screenwriter Craig Pearce heavily relied on Fitzgerald’s text in guiding the narrative. Pearce emphasizes the idea that the story of Gatsby is one in which an overabundance of hope, not pride, goes before a fall. Of course, the writing is best when it is lifted directly from the novel itself, but luckily the adaptation is for the most part faithful.

The strongest performance in the film is unsurprisingly Carey Mulligan as Daisy, with solid showings from Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. Joel Edgerton also delivers a very well-played Tom Buchanan.

In some places Luhrmann’s reach exceeds his grasp and the film spirals out of control stylistically. While the adaptation is faithful, it is not subtle, and paints with a broad brush where a more delicate hand could have done better service to Fitzgerald’s beloved text.

An ideal reworking of this film would still include the exuberance of Luhrmann’s beautiful depiction of jazz age New York, with the well-chosen cast and soundtrack intact, but Luhrmann’s style would be granted greater depth with more intimate, less airbrushed scenes interspersed with the grand parties and fairytale castles. That would certainly make “Gatsby” great.