Beneath Baz Luhrmann's extravagantly hassled "The Great Gatsby" lies a great American novel filled with genuine feeling.
You must look past excessively staged party scenes that equate grimacing exertion with fun. Past smash cuts, sepia flashbacks and Luhrmann's constant visual fiddling, and past anachronistic songs (Jay-Z!) halfheartedly and ineffectually mixed in with the film's orchestral score.
Look to Leonardo DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton, who bring authentic passion to their characters – the mysterious, lovelorn, nouveau riche party thrower Jay Gatsby and his polo-playing, generations-rich and casually racist (it was the 1920s) romantic rival, Tom Buchanan.
And to Tobey Maguire, a beacon of solidity as narrator (and author F. Scott Fitzgerald's stand-in) Nick Carraway, and Carey Mulligan, intriguingly opaque as Tom's wife and Gatsby's obsession, Daisy.
Their performances tease out ideas that Fitzgerald's novel, set in 1922 among Long Island mansions and amid seemingly endless economic prosperity, put forth: That pleasure attached to material possessions is transitory and that the new rich can bootstrap their way to wealth but cannot rise above a social iron ceiling put in place by their old-money predecessors, forever 1 percenters.
DiCaprio and the other actors, unfortunately, are trapped in a movie fighting itself, as Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge!") undercuts their characters' emotional complexity by celebrating lavish, empty displays of wealth. He zooms in on Gatsby's manse, lit up and spired like a Disney castle, and shoves Gatsby's vrooming yellow roadster in our faces via 3-D technology.
Luhrmann's plans to use 3-D on "Gatsby," when first announced, seemed anti-thetical to Fitzgerald. But in the film, it's just one element in Luhrmann's heap of visual flourishes.
When Luhrmann finally introduces Gatsby – heretofore shown only at a distance – a half-hour into the film, he sets off a display of fireworks behind DiCaprio's smiling face. It's as if Gatsby is all triumph and no tragedy, because he's rich.
Luhrmann's over-the-top visuals by now are his wearisome signature. But given how much better the movie's calmer, more emotional scenes play than the hyper-kinetic ones, Luhrmann's visual fervor suggests less of a style than a crisis of confidence.
He appears to lack faith in his ability to do justice to Fitzgerald's novel without bells and whistles. He underestimates his audience by assuming 2013 electronic beats will play as anything but awkward in a '20s setting – as if the siren call of Jay-Z, Kanye and Gotye is too great for young audience members to resist. (The inclusion of pan-flasher Gotye alludes to the film's delay from its original release date in December).
"Gatsby" does not need musical or camera tricks. Catherine Martin's (Luhrmann's wife) production design explodes with beauty on its own. Though Luhrmann shot the film mostly on Australian soundstages, its Long Island mansion interiors appear authentic. The Buchanans' estate holds gorgeous rugs and furniture that – like the furnishings on "Downton Abbey" – speak more to timeless taste than era.
The movie's fabulous fashions (also Martin's department) read more 1920s specific, with Mulligan showcasing a diamond-patterned head scarf and flapper bob. But the true beauty here is the tanned, exquisitely tailored DiCaprio.
The clothes – including a beaut of a pink three-piece suit – partly make the man, and the aching need DiCaprio exhibits does the rest.
"Gatsby" becomes a real movie and not just a parade of visual tricks about an hour in, when DiCaprio shows Gatsby's crippling nervousness at the prospect of seeing Daisy for the first time in years.
He had romanced Daisy before she ever met Tom. But she came from money, and as an ambitious yet penniless soldier, Gatsby could not keep her.
When DiCaprio etches Gatsby's usually smooth bearing with worry, he instantly becomes more like Fitzgerald's Gatsby than Robert Redford was in the 1974 film adaptation. Redford is a cerebral actor and DiCaprio is a gut actor, and Gatsby as a character is mostly gut.
DiCaprio evokes tremendous sympathy – perhaps even more than Fitzgerald intended. That's just what happens with DiCaprio. He lays out emotion and we latch onto it. So much so that the Kennedy-esque accent he adopts in a few scenes can be forgiven. The accent suggests the actor believes all new-money, early 20th century Americans sounded like Irish Bostonians, though Gatsby hails from the Midwest.
Gatsby believes the same fierce drive that won him a fortune through dubious enterprises can win back Daisy, as if life works that way. Mulligan's eyes shine with affection and longing in scenes with DiCaprio, but she rarely reveals her character's intentions.
That, too, sticks close to the book. Daisy is more symbol than person, a representative of Gatsby's great optimism and of a class ideal.
Tom, by contrast, is a flesh-and-blood brute who plays his intentions on the surface, in the novel and in Edgerton's performance. This entitled man bullies and backslaps his way through life, as assured in his impressive physicality as he is in his family's social status. But the slightest threat to that status throws him off.
He insists that his wife and his mistress (a wonderfully blowsy Isla Fisher) know their places. When that balance is disturbed, he blames everyone but himself, including Gatsby as well as the non-whites he perceives as threatening world order. (Edgerton's thin mustache combines with his bone structure to suggest Hitler – that had to be on purpose.)
DiCaprio's real-life rapport with longtime friend Maguire translates to the screen. Maguire is characteristically reserved and watchful as Nick, who is Daisy's cousin and closer to the Buchanans in the social order but befriends Gatsby as well.
Maguire's and DiCaprio's performances succeed partly because of their established personas. We buy Maguire as a good guy because he was Spider-Man. DiCaprio has played so many complicated figures (Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover) in period dramas that Gatsby appears a natural extension.
Such shortcuts are not just helpful, but necessary in a film as overblown as "Gatsby."
THE GREAT GATSBY
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton
Director: Baz Luhrmann
PG-13 (Some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying, brief language)
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
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