By Claudia Puig
Frenzied and overwrought, Baz Luhrmann'sThe Great Gatsbyis a glitz-filled folly.
The director has fashioned a gaudy long-form music video - all kaleidoscopic spectacle and little substance - rather than a radiant new take on an American literary classic.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's epic tragedy is lost amid the lavish excess (** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Thursday night in select theaters and Friday nationwide).
So much effort seems to have gone into the eye-popping production design, swooping camera work and anachronistic musical score that the result is hyper-active cacophony rather than enthralling entertainment.
For those who don't remember their high school English classes, The Great Gatsby is the tale of the mysterious self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, as seen through the eyes of his next-door neighbor Nick Carraway.
Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) has bought an impossibly luxurious mansion on Long Island for one purpose: to grab the attention of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), the socialite he has obsessively loved since they courted five years before. He throws outlandishly sumptuous parties in the hopes that one day she will stop by.
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Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and lives across the water from Gatsby. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is her distant cousin. When Gatsby learns of their connection, he persuades Nick to invite Daisy to tea, intent on rekindling her affections.
For a while their passion flares, but things end badly for this party-hearty bunch.
Luhrmann is drawn to tales of impossible love - see his William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! So Gatsby would seem to be in his wheelhouse. But while his version is undeniably resplendent, the story's emotional beats fall flat.
In the novel, when no one shows up for Gatsby's final gathering, it's a poignant moment. But in the movie that scene is almost glanced over.
The performances are generally lackluster. DiCaprio has some of the haunted qualities of Gatsby, but also comes off as dully aloof. He and Mulligan lack chemistry. Edgerton plays the role of Tom as if twirling a villain's mustache. Maguire is serviceable, but bland.
Luhrmann's 3-D visual flourishes feel superfluous: Occasionally, words pop out across the screen as Nick feverishly writes Gatsby's tale, and feathers, confetti and streamers fly toward the audience during Gatsby's orgiastic soirees. None of it contributes to a sense of immersion.
The melange of hip hop, pop and jazz might have worked if the rest of the film hadn't been bent on overkill. Interspersing the music of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey makes commercial sense for attracting young audiences. But it feels more calculated than artfully integrated.
The film conveys the decadence of a moneyed crowd in the Roaring '20s. But nothing about the story is moving, or remotely subtle. While it can be argued that Fitzgerald employed rather overt symbolism, his words were also marked by nuance, which Luhrmann essentially obliterates.
A key scene stands out for its significance: Gatsby takes Daisy on a tour of his estate. Elated to have her in his house and conscious of his vast wealth, he goes into his bedroom, pulls out dozens of custom-made tailored shirts and throws them on the bed. Daisy buries her face in the shirts and sobs at their beauty.
It's as if Luhrmann used that scene for his template. His version of The Great Gatsbyis stylish, colorful material piled on in excess and tinged with overheated melodrama.