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Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Gatsby Movie Review

The combination of Baz Luhrmann - he of the "spectacular spectacular" - and the current trend in 3D filmmaking is a match made in cinematic heaven. Throwing the story of "The Great Gatsby" into the mix, however, turns out to be less of a success. The director's unique ability to mash-up genres and influences makes F. Scott Fitzgerald's story of the mysterious Jay Gatsby feel at once amplified and minuscule.

Mr. Luhrmann brings to life 1920s New York as only he can - with sweeping establishing shots, wild jump-cuts and a soundtrack that's a potpourri of jazz, hip hop and everything in between (courtesy of Jay-Z and some famous pals). As in the novel, the film finds hapless, struggling writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moving out to Long Island to to be a bond salesman. His neighbor, it turns out, is the titular tycoon (Leonardo DiCaprio) who's prone to throwing lavish parties that are the movie's energetic centerpiece. Mr. Luhrmann stages these bacchanals as a kind of proto-nightclub scene where music pounds, champagne flows, confetti falls, and every night ends with a fireworks display. This is where Mr. Luhrmann is at his most comfortable; the party sequences make those of "Moulin Rouge" look positively quaint. And it's here that the director uses 3D technology in a way that's entirely his own. The scenes have a palpable quality to them - you're as close to being in the moment as any filmmaker could hope.

Less effective, though, are the longer expository sequences, many of which seem taken verbatim from the novel. Across the bay from Gatsby's mansion live Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom's a racist and womanizer, and Daisy seems resigned to her fate with him. That is, until, she meets Gatsby with whom, it turns out, she has a history.

Despite the novel's legendary status and ostensible commentary on excess, the core of the story is a bit of a soap opera. And it's here that the film struggles. As Daisy, Carey Mulligan is radiant, but her character is too much a function of the plot to ever coalesce into a sympathetic figure. Likewise Mr. Maguire's Nick starts out strong but his role as narrator and observer holds him back. Nick's over-used voice-over, and dialogue that's too on-the-nose ("I'm empty inside, maybe that's why I fill my house with so many things"), make his scenes feel as staid as the parties are vibrant.

Casting Mr. DiCaprio as Gatsby makes perfect sense - as did casting Robert Redford in the stilted 1974 version. While he's never comfortable delivering the character's signature "Old Sport", Mr. DiCaprio is able to find more of a character in Gatsby than Mr. Redford's enigmatic portrayal. This Gatsby wears his insecurities on his pink-hued lapels. In fact, his initial meeting with Daisy is played for outright comedy.

Oddly, it's Tom Buchanan, the abusive cad, that comes out most memorable in the film, thanks to a well-modulated performance by Joel Edgerton. The actor brings a period-appropriate quality to the role and, despite his significant flaws, comes off more true to himself that the phonies with which he surrounds himself.

If certain scenes from the film appear to be lifted from the Redford version, it's possible that there simply aren't many other ways to approach the material. It may be time for this much-adapted novel to sit on the shelf for a while, until a time when it can be truly reinvented. The story has been told and retold to the point of parody. Our obsession with it would appear to be, ironically, reaching a point of excess.

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