Review: The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rich Boy

This often-repeated quote begins F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story Rich Boy, but it could be from Fitzgerald's magnum opus The Great Gatsby, a novel about the very rich. And the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby brings to mind a twist on the quote: Let me tell you about Baz Luhrmann's films. They are different.

Different, of course, can be wonderful. Luhrmann's proudly over-the-top style -- a mix of grand scale, busy, color-saturated visuals, daring anachronisms, hyperactive pacing and general excess -- works very well in his most successful features, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!.

Luhrmann's brand of filmmaking, however, doesn't work so well in The Great Gatsby for two reasons: The story is character driven, not visually driven. And Luhrmann doesn't realize that a little 3D goes a long, long way.

The Great Gatsby and Luhrmann should be a great match, as the filmmaker and the novel's central figure, the Jazz Age millionaire Jay Gatsby, share a love of artifice and excess. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) lives in an ostentatious mansion in the fictional Long Island village of New Egg, where he leads a life of leisure, self indulgence and extravagant parties, punctuated with the occasional shady business deal that finances his lifestyle.

The story's narrator is Gatsby's far less affluent neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a bond trader from the Midwest who rents a small house and is curious about Gatsby's lifestyle. Nick has other ties to Long Island; his second cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives across the bay; her husband is old-money millionaire Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Nick's Yale classmate.

Gatsby invites Nick to one of his outrageous parties, where the two discover they served together in World War I. They become friends, and Nick learns that Daisy once dated Gatsby, who wants Nick to arrange a reunion with her. To curry favor with his rich neighbor, Nick reunites the two former lovers at an awkwardly amusing afternoon tea; of course, trouble ensues.

What follows is what makes The Great Gatsby a bona fide Great American Novel -- passionate affairs, jealousies and confrontations, revelations about characters' pasts and tragic events. Fitzgerald's novel tells us that with their very human failings, the rich actually aren't so different from you and me. They have more money, but are no better at dealing with life's complexities. The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale about the dark side of the American dream of wealth and power, and a powerful character study of a man consumed by his own decadent desires.

Again, the story and the filmmaker should be a great match -- but like Jay Gatsby, Luhrmann's film is a victim of its excesses. The movie is a blaring and glaring assault on the senses, an extravagant feast of brilliantly colored 3D eye candy that throbs relentlessly to a soundtrack of Twenties standards mixed with modern tracks by Jay Z, Beyoncé and other contemporary artists. (Actually, this anachronistic mix works surprisingly well whenever it's not overbearing.)

The fundamental problem with Luhrmann's brassy, unfettered take on The Great Gatsby is that this festival of sight and sound clobbers the character-driven heart of the story. The eye-popping 3D effects can be stunning, but are totally unnecessary and almost always distracting; we're so busy studying the visual contrasts and watching characters and objects move around the screen that we miss the subtle moments of dialogue and character development that give the story its power. (Even quotes from the novel are displayed in 3D. Using the effect this way is complete overkill.)

The film's pacing is mostly frenetic; the first half-hour, an amped speedball of party scenes and staccato dialogue, left me exhausted. Thankfully, the pace slows for more intimate moments such as Daisy and Gatsby's reunion at Nick's house. (Funny and cleverly staged, this is my favorite scene.) But the characters barely catch their breath before the film rockets ahead with more speeding cars, shouting matches and gargantuan parties.

The acting in The Great Gatsby is competent if unmemorable, and I sympathize with the cast as they compete with the crowded visuals and thumping soundtrack. (The characters often are shouting over the music.) DiCaprio, Mulligan, Maguire and Edgerton perform expectedly well, but even their considerable acting chops can't help them flesh out their characters in a hyperactive film with little time to waste on nuance and character development.

To be fair, Luhrmann may have intended his film to be less about the characters than about the cultural excesses of the era. If so, The Great Gatsby is very effective; it's a roaring film about the Roaring Twenties, a dangerously indulgent movie about the dangers of indulgence. Its soundtrack also succeeds in this way, and the modern pop music emphasizes the story's timelessness by tying the film to the breakneck pace, One Percent worship and affluenza of 21st-century life.

But I'm not convinced there is such a method to Luhrmann's madness; my sense is that he just went overboard with his trademark style and compounded his excesses by filming everything in gloriously overblown 3D. The end result is a sensually arresting film that should appeal less to our senses and more to our intellect.

Despite my criticisms, The Great Gatsby isn't a terrible film; it's just a bad adaptation of an outstanding novel. It's watchable, stylistically intriguing and certainly never dull. Fans of the novel probably should avoid it, but Luhrmann groupies may, like Jay Gatsby, revel in its sheer outrageousness.