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Baz Luhrmann tries way too hard to bring ‘The Great Gatsby’ to life

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Swoon-worthy: Mulligan and DiCaprio stare longingly into each other’s eyes (in 3D!).

The Details

Even more than most Lit 101 classics, The Great Gatsby stubbornly resists translation to the big screen. You can see why filmmakers keep trying: The novel is set in (and thoroughly embodies) the visually spectacular Jazz Age; is centered upon a doomed love affair between two fabulously wealthy and gorgeous characters; includes a reasonable amount of superficial “action” (lavish parties, a car wreck, a murder); and trades in such irresistible symbols as the green light at the end of Daisy’s pier and the all-seeing eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, optometrist. Nobody seems to register that the novel’s brilliance is inextricable from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegant, decidedly internal prose style—that what happens means little or nothing when divorced from stand-in narrator Nick Carraway’s bemused attitude toward what happens. The last major film adaptation, made in 1974 and starring Robert Redford in the title role, was as faithful to the book as are its Cliffs Notes, and every bit as lifeless. Determined to avoid that error, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) has instead fashioned a Gatsby that practically beats you about the head with ostensible Greatness.

This version, too, sticks very close to its source, though it’s worth noting that the book is fairly short and the movie, at two-and-a-half hours, rather long. The most significant departure introduces Nick (Tobey Maguire) as a patient in a sanitarium, recounting the movie’s story (in film-length flashback) as an exercise demanded by his doctor. Back in 1922, he’d rented a small cottage in fashionable, nouveau riche West Egg, Long Island, right next to a mansion owned by the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Making a rare personal appearance (to the hilariously dramatic accompaniment of Gershwin and fireworks) at one of the bacchanalian parties he regularly throws, Gatsby befriends Nick and urges him to arrange a meeting with Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who was once intimate with Gatsby but is now married to old-money boor Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). This quixotic attempt to rekindle a flame long since dead does not go, shall we say, swimmingly, and the American Dream, as represented by Gatsby’s amoral reinvention, turns out to be as beautifully empty as the silk shirts Gatsby tosses at Daisy to prove his value.

Like Redford, DiCaprio isn’t afraid to make Gatsby look pathetic, emphasizing the character’s trying-too-hard eagerness and employing a faint hint of an imagined upper-class accent. It’s one of his strongest performances in years, but it’s perpetually drowned out by Luhrmann’s ADD pyrotechnics, which find the director identifying much too strongly with Gatsby’s penchant for vulgar excess. (As usual, Nick, whose thoughts are the novel, winds up seeming faintly irrelevant, despite heaps of voiceover narration and even chunks of the text slapped right onscreen.) The anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack, the machine-gun editing, the pointless 3D—it’s all just as sadly desperate as the ludicrous effort Gatsby makes to improve Nick’s house in preparation for Daisy’s arrival, carting in gigantic bouquets of flowers and multi-tiered cakes. “Do you think it’s too much?” he worriedly asks Nick. The lack of conscious irony is almost painful.

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