'Gatsby' glitzy, but fails to dazzle

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

Perhaps the iconic American novel "The Great Gatsby" isn't read much on the other side of the world -- like, for example, in Australia.

That's the most charitable explanation for the overblown-to-the-point-of-ridiculous adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel that down-under director Baz Luhrmann has inflicted upon America.

Each time one of the story's main characters is introduced, there's a pregnant pause to tell the audience we're meeting someone important here. "His name was ... Tom Buchanan," a voice intones of the old-monied man of little class (played by Joel Edgerton) who used to play polo but now just plays with married women's hearts.

It becomes actually laughable when we finally meet the title character, the (in)famous party host we've been hearing about since the story started. "I'm Jay Gatsby," Leonardo DiCaprio declares as he turns around to face the screen for the first time, and the first big crescendo of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" erupts. The film's title, it seems, wasn't enough to convince us of the man's significance.

On screen
'The Great Gatsby'
» Rating: 1 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire
» Director: Baz Luhrmann
» Rated: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
» Running time: 143 minutes

To be fair, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) does get a different entrance. Our first look at her is through a close-up of her beautiful and very large diamond ring. It was almost certainly made by Tiffany's, which supplied jewelry to the star and is using the connection in a marketing campaign to sell the public items such a $200,000 headpiece similar to the one Daisy wears to one of Gatsby's great parties in the movie. The moment could be cut into an advertisement without any sort of editing, in fact. Much of the film feels this way -- the closely cut colorful suits the men wear can be found in Brooks Brothers' "Gatsby Collection" at a store near you.

"I'm just so cynical about it all," says the intensely naive Daisy to her cousin Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, with goofy smiles on his face throughout the film), the narrator. If only she could have seen the Great American Novel -- about optimism and brutality, in a world in which actual accomplishment (creating a fortune) is nothing compared with inheritance recklessly squandered -- turned into just one aspect of a large enterprise to sell expensive customer goods.

The main action takes place in the summer of 1922, but Nick is narrating it sometime later. Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have added an unnecessary framing device that itself veers toward the ludicrous at times. The neurotic Nick is in a sanatorium, telling his story to a psychiatrist. "Was he a friend of yours?" the doctor asks Nick when he begins to talk about Gatsby. A few minutes later: "Oh, he was your neighbor."

But there are many other additions, as well as things excised. It seems Fitzgerald's prose wasn't always up to snuff, and the most famous chronicler -- part creator, really -- of the Jazz Age didn't properly communicate those heady times, so we need Nick to tell us melodramatically that "the tempo of the city approached hysteria."

Oh, and don't even bother using that moniker, "the Jazz Age." Luhrmann doesn't think his audience can understand the past without direct parallels to our own time. So the distinctly American art form of jazz is pushed aside in favor of modern rap, hip hop and soul. Jay-Z was an executive producer of the film, and the soundtrack features works by him and his wife, Beyonce, as well as a cover of a Beyonce song. Only one song -- Bryan Ferry's jazzy cover of his own Roxy Music tune "Love Is the Drug" -- points the way to a more intriguing mix of old and new.

But Luhrmann believes we must have this music playing, and characters living the lifestyle that accompanies those who make it, to suggest to audiences these are the modern counterparts to the denizens of the Jazz Age. But the flappers were a heck of lot braver than any of our heavily tattooed, scantily clad R&B stars. There are no taboos, really, left for the latter to break. But Luhrmann clearly doesn't understand the time he ostensibly tried to re-create -- albeit in Australia, rather than in the real setting of New York. Nick tells us of Prohibition, "The ban on alcohol backfired, making it cheaper." There's not a lick of truth to that.

Or much else in this disappointing spectacle. The opening, with an Art Deco design moving toward the audience in three dimensions, might be the closest the film comes to the Jazz Age.

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Kelly Jane Torrance

Washington Examiner Movie Critic
The Washington Examiner