Jay Gatsby has an interesting dialogue in the film that sums up everything the critics say the film is not. “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can.” As irony may have it, the film fails to repeat the essence of the 1920’s American-dream that exists in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby. “Whereas the book was an elegantly structured exercise in social nuance, the film careers from excess to excess before toppling into another puddle of excess. The temptation to title it Gatsby!!! must have been close to overwhelming,” writes Donald Clark in a review for the Irish Times.
The failure to capture the heart of the book is not Luhrmann’s only failure, critics say. The film never crosses the two-star mark, often falling to a single lonely star. Anthony Quinn ridicules the flamboyant appearance of the film in the The Independent as being “garish, hyperbolic”. “Gatsby…appears framed against a burst of fireworks – boom! – with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" reaching its majestic climax. If he'd jumped out of a cake it couldn't have been more spectacular,” jokes Quinn. “Luhrmann is…daring, and he connects to something in the story's love-hate attitude to ostentation; it has energy, but not subtlety; dazzle, but not depth,” he declares.
Meanwhile, there are others who appreciate the burlesque larger-than-life splendor that Gatsby is. Chris Tookey notes in the Daily Mail, “Luhrmann is in his element at Long Island parties of the Roaring Twenties, and invests them with glitz, glamour and more than a hint of decadence.” However, he too is not so impressed with what the film delivers. Tookey titles his review candidly, “Not-so-Great-Gatsby: The Roaring 20s have never looked better, but Baz Luhrmann's film of the classic is as shallow as spilt champagne.”
The most attacking review, however, has to be The Rolling Stones review by Peter Travers. Travers not only trashes, but goes back to ambush the film irreversibly. “Shush. Listen. That's F. Scott Fitzgerald turning in his grave…Aside from the staggering beauty of Catherine Martin's costumes, nothing works. The actors are buried in the art direction, along with feeling. The film looks as stiff and lifeless as a posh store window,” he writes.
“There may be worse movies this summer than The Great Gatsby, but there won't be a more crushing disappointment,” laments Travers. The writing is on the wall – Gatsby sparkles but is not gold.