Set over one hot, tragic summer, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel paints vivid prose pictures that no movie has ever captured wholly successfully (despite several attempts, most famously the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow adap).
So when Warner moved its 3D Gatsby from an award-seducing Christmas release date to a later summer slot, there was reasonable suspicion that this audacious, ostentatious take on the classic tale simply sucked.
But it turns out tentpole season is exactly the right place for this “splendid mirage”, which finds Midwestern chancer Nick Carraway (the novel’s narrator) becoming embroiled with his wealthy neighbour Jay Gatsby’s pursuit of married society beauty Daisy Buchanan.
Like Gatsby himself, the movie’s a handsome attraction whose dizzying/vulgar wealth is unashamedly flaunted to court favour with bright young things. At the same time, it pays enough due diligence to the source material to appease the purists. In fact, a clumsy framing device aside, director Baz Luhrmann (in his first big-screen outing since 2008’s Australia) is borderline slavish to the text (re-read the book and you’ll see how precise he’s been).
Still, grumps can rightfully complain that he condenses the novel’s multi-layered exploration of manifest destiny, nouveau-riche aspiration vs blue-stocking entitlement and the brittle value of the American Dream down to a doomed romance of Titanic proportions.
Like Cameron's leaky-ship pic, this Gatsby - with its artificial Disney-esque CGI homes, God's-eye swooping camera shots, staggering scale, manipulative, idiosyncratic soundtrack and emotional shorthand - is designed to enrapture a new generation for whom the book is merely a GCSE chore.
And in that aim, Luhrmann succeeds: DiCaprio is smartly note-perfect as a hottie who has reinvented himself; there are even sly nods to his most famous heartthrob roles in some shot compositions. Meanwhile, the exciting decadence of the era is slickly, luridly visualised like a series of high-end music videos.
Joel Edgerton's virile turn as Daisy's bullish, unfaithful husband Tom also impresses, while Tobey Maguire suffices as Carraway. But it’s the untempered fascination with glamour and the casting of Carey Mulligan that’ll most trouble Fitzgerald fans.
Luhrmann seems as much under a spell as Gatsby's guests without ever finding the truly bitter pill at the heart of the author’s work. Mulligan, meanwhile, is naturally too empathetic and open an actress to pull off the requisite cruel carelessness and preternatural incandescence that each reader projects individually when discovering Daisy. And the 3D is like Gatsby’s overflowing champagne - initially intoxicating but ultimately a headache.
Gatsby fans will be unoffended yet untransported, but soundtracks will sell, DiCaprio will be on bedroom walls again and new readers may discover the book - which is no bad thing.