F Scott Fitzgerald's classic, complex novella of bad timing and lost love in the Jazz Age has been brought once again to the cinema, now starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic young plutocrat Gatsby himself; Carey Mulligan as Daisy, the object of his passion, and Tobey Maguire as Daisy's cousin Nick, the outsider-insider through whose wondering narration the story is filtered. Having watched this fantastically unthinking and heavy-handed adaptation, the opening gala of this year's Cannes festival, I feel the only way to make it less subtle would be to let Michael Bay direct it. As it is, the task has fallen to Baz Luhrmann, the director of Moulin Rouge! and Australia, a man who can't see a nuance without calling security for it to be thrown off his set.
With literary adaptations, part of the fascination generally lies in seeing how the director has read the source material, perhaps with some new interpretation. But what exactly Luhrmann makes of the legend of Jay Gatsby — the invisible, wounded centre of a thousand extravagant parties — is still a mystery to me, hours after the final credits have rolled. If Luhrmann was to make a new version of The Wizard Of Oz, his wizard would finally stride out from behind the curtain a magnificent and talented giant, every bit as awesome as his reputation, and the final 45 minutes of the movie would be a colossal party scene, dominated by the colossus Oz, with crash zooms and 3D swoops.
As for his Gatsby, it is bombastic and excessive, like a 144-minute trailer for itself, at once pedantic and yet unreflective, as if Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce had created the film on the basis of a brief, bullet-pointed executive summary of the book prepared by a corporate assistant. They are quite clear in their minds that the final sentence of the book is very famous and very important and they actually spell it out on screen in typewriter-letters as it is being narrated. But the actual ending, those desperately sad, subdued final scenes, and the heartwrenching encounter with Gatsby's elderly father — well, Luhrmann hasn't attached much importance to that. It's a glib and shallow film; but there are moments of sweetness in DiCaprio's scenes with Mulligan as their love is rekindled, and those anachronistic musical sequences from Jay-Z, such a bone of contention, are actually bold moments when the film comes crazily alive, and has some of the irreverent energy of Lurhmann's version of Romeo and Juliet.
The film is in fact narrated in flashback, with Maguire's Nick attempting therapy for his depression and alcoholism, an interesting 21st century slant on all the frenzied drinking going on. He recalls being a young bond trader in the Prohibition years who somehow rents a tiny cottage up in the Hamptons, just next door to the much-whispered-about Gatsby, who holds staggeringly sumptuous parties in his mansion. Nick renews his acquaintance with his cousin Daisy (Mulligan) who lives in elegant ennui and unspoken melancholy just across the bay from Gatsby, with her boorish wealthy husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Gatsby is keen for Nick to engineer a discreet meeting with Daisy, and whatever lucrative racket Gatsby's into, he's prepared to let Nick have a piece of it, with an introduction to his shadowy business acquaintance Wolfsheim: an odd cameo from Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. For his part, Nick is disturbed by evidence that Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the brassy wife of a roadhouse manager.
Luhrmann creates vivid 1920s backdrops behind all this: faintly preposterous and yet undeniably lively: all-singing, all-dancing, all-greenscreening effects work, and Jay-Z's music is audacious and exhilarating. There is colourised black-and-white footage and depthless digital panoramas of New York, the Hamptons and the ashy, crummy no-man's-land in-between; there are hyper-real street scenes through which Gatsby roars in his sports car. And of course there are plenty of those headache-inducing camera zooms.
The parties are logistically impressive, but Fitzgerald's disturbing sense that we are witnessing something like an American Weimar is not really there, and even the gushing, shaken-champagne-bottle approach doesn't quite approximate the giddy sense that America really is where gigantic fortunes are suddenly and unfairly to be made. When Gatsby finally reveals himself, it is to the accompaniment of fireworks and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, a misjudged moment and an ambient gimmick Luhrmann has clearly taken off the peg from the opening of Woody Allen's Manhattan.
DiCaprio carries the role off reasonably well; he is probably the only possible casting, and Mulligan's Daisy has gentleness and vulnerability. Their initial intimate meeting over tea in Nick's cottage, has some charge, and DiCaprio and Mulligan handle it well. But we are soon back to the digital city scenes and crash zooms, and we are incessantly left with the obtuse and tiresome figure of Nick himself, that non-participating narrator played by Maguire with a zonked expression of … well, what exactly? He looks perpetually supercilious and hungover without having drunk half as much as anyone else. This is a movie whose adjective is unearned. It's a flashy Gatsby, a sighing Gatsby, an angry Gatsby, a celeb Gatsby. But not a great one.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk