Great Gatsby redux gorges on decadence

Posted: May 10, 2013 at 3:20 a.m.

Attended by his butler (Conor Fogarty), the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) lolls in luxury in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

With The Great Gatsby, Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) may be adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, but his philosophy seems to be more grounded in the work of William Blake. After seeing the film, it’s easy to believe the poet was mistaken when he declared, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

"The Great Gatsby"

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) discuss the mysterious Jay Gatsby in this clip from Baz Luhrman's "The Great Gatsby." Courtesy of Warner Bros.
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Instead of presenting Fitzgerald’s tale to viewers, Luhrmann assaults us with it. Luhrmann’s movies always have frantic camerawork and gaudy colors, but 3-D and a CGI re-creation of 1920s New York enables him to open the floodgates with relentless images of decadence and some pretty heavy-handed symbolism. (The pinky ring that ornaments Jay Gatsby’s finger is prominent enough to qualify for a screen credit.) The end result is that the film leaves viewers with the sort of hangover that you might get from overindulging in bathtub gin.

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carrie Mulligan) comfort each other in Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D version of The Great Gatsby.

From his grave, Fitzgerald seems to have put some obstacles in the way of any filmmaker who tries to bring his tale to the screen. It’s no wonder that when the novel was filmed in the ’20s, the author and his wife went to see the film and walked out in disgust. Luhrmann seems to have anticipated some of the challenges. But not all of them.

The first difficulty is that the novel’s protagonist Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is simply an observer. In the book, that’s not really a problem, but on screen it’s a role no actor would envy because Nick is simply there when the novel’s most dramatic events take place. He’s just watching people who are occasionally more interesting.

Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce give him a little more back story, but it only seems to serve as an excuse for Nick to “write” the tale that unfolds. The framing device does little more than take up screen time. Note to screenwriters: Therapy scenes are not that interesting if you’re not the one treating or being treated.

The other major issue is that so much of the beauty of the novel comes from Fitzgerald’s elegant narrative. Eye-gouging 3-D is a poor substitute.

For those who didn’t get to read the novel in school, Nick has a pretty cousin named Daisy (British actress Carey Mulligan), who is married to old-money tycoon Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Tom is proof that old money and a fine bloodline are simply not enough to obtain class. He recites quack racist sociology books when he’s not drinking himself into a stupor or cheating on his wife with a gas station owner’s spouse, Myrtle (Isla Fisher).

Nick is a lowly bond trader who just happens to live in the neighborhood. His home is more modest than his neighbors’. The fellow next door is a low-key fellow named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) who holds parties that make Roman bacchanals seem tame. Because he’s rarely seen at his own soirees, there are dozens of conflicting stories about who he is. Nonetheless, his money and connections are very real, if a bit shady.

Luhrmann avoids some of the traps that previous adaptations have suffered by revealing Gatsby’s origins earlier in the film. (The already tedious 1974 adaptation - starring Robert Redford and written by Francis Ford Coppola - ground to a halt as director Jack Clayton swamped viewers with exposition the way Luhrmann pelts them with 3-D confetti.)

But for every shrewd move that Luhrmann makes, he comes back with another that’s not so effective. DiCaprio and Edgerton play their roles as if they had been directed to imitate Tex Avery cartoon characters. Their accents are broad, and their mannerisms are distracting. They look like they’re competing against the opulent scenery. Edgerton, in particular, looks as if his head will explode into a viewer’s glasses.

With Mulligan, however,Daisy becomes unusually sympathetic. In print and in some previous adaptations, she comes off as so self-absorbed that you can’t wait for Freddy Krueger to invade her dreams so he can put us out of her misery.

At least Luhrmann picked out a great soundtrack that deftly mixes everything from George Gershwin to Amy Winehouse.

The Great Gatsby is not a classic because it’s old and its first-edition cover decorates most locations for Barnes & Noble. Luhrmann’s enthusiasm for the material is warranted because Fitzgerald’s observations about wealth and excess are still valid even if we can buy alcohol legally these days. It’s easy to tell that he loves the author’s gift for language just as much as I do or any other fan of the novel does.

Not only does Luhrmann have Maguire recite it, he even flashes the words on the screen. Just in case you missed them.

The Great Gatsby 77 Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan Director: Baz Luhrmann Rating: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language Running time: 143 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 05/10/2013