Take 1974's Gatsby: with a script by none other than Francis Ford Coppola and starring turns from Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, it was (deservedly) derided for being too stuffy and "prestige-y" (for lack of a better word). There is a stiffness to it all: in getting directly at Fitzgerald's themes, it makes Jazz Age New York look like a slurry of Important Costume Drama tropes, without any of the liveliness in Fitzgerald's prose.
Now, in 2013, we have a new Gatsby: Leonardo DiCaprio plays the titular character, a mysterious man who throws massive parties at his mansion in fictional West Egg, New York. Naive Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) - the Fitzgerald and audience stand-in - moves into the cottage next door, and frequently visits his rich cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom Buchanan (best-in-show Joel Edgerton), across the bay in East Egg. Nick grows close to Gatsby, who ropes him in to a plot to reunite him with Daisy, a plan that eventually spirals out of control.
The new film comes from Baz Luhrmann, the Moulin Rouge! director who seems intent on making only one film every seven years. One of the core problems with this film, though, is that Luhrmann is simultaneously the best and worst choice for directing. When it comes to staging the lavish bacchanals, who better than Mr. Spectacular Spectacular himself? And make no mistake, those scenes are magnificently-staged spectacles, champagne-and-chandaliers eye-candy matched with a gloriously anachronistic soundtrack (Lana Del Rey's haunting "Young & Beautiful" being the standout). The film as a whole has a gorgeous sheen to it, much to the credit of cinematographer of Simon Duggan.
However, at the same time, Luhrmann has a tougher go at handling the more human moments. Working again with longtime collaborator Craig Pierce, their script too often hammers home Fitzgerald's themes of old money vs. new money and the recklessness of the rich, who believe themselves to be above the rules that govern the rest of us (certainly relevant today). Worse, though, is the film's tacky framing device, which places Nick in a sanitarium some point after the events of the film, his doctor recommending that he write it all down as a novel. It allows for some of Fitzgerald's original lines to be used, but it feels imported from another, lesser movie, and never gels with everything else in the film.
The majority of this review sounds like I'm dumping on the film. I realize that I kind of am; this was, after all, my most anticipated film of the year, so I had high hopes for it. I don't mean for it to sound like I didn't enjoy it; in fact, I greatly enjoyed it, and I think that what does work makes up for what doesn't. But I think the world is still waiting for the truly great Gatsby film that Fitzgerald's novel deserves. Until then, though, this entertaining spectacle will do. B+