“Do you think it’s too much?”
“I think it’s what you want.”
“I think so, too.”
That excerpted exchange from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s long-hailed novel, “The Great Gatsby,” ostensibly takes place between love-struck millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his hapless neighbor, WWI veteran Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), but it might as well have belonged to director Baz Luhrmann and anyone who enabled his latest glitzy endeavor –- in 3-D, no less.
It’s not that Luhrmann’s overwrought, proudly anachronistic style is a surprise at this point. His “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “Australia” have made his directorial intentions quite clear, that more is more, newer is neater and bigger is better. However, just as our narrator is invited into Long Island’s most lavish parties whenever thrown by the enigma next door, Luhrmann hopes to kick the Roaring ‘20s up a notch with a heaping helping of hip-hop (Jay-Z counts among the film’s executive producers) and no small amount of digital augmentation.
One might like “Rhapsody in Blue” and Jay-Z’s own tracks in nearly equal measure, but one’s first instinct wouldn’t be to thrust the two together for maximum enjoyment. Updating “Romeo + Juliet” to reflect SoCal gang warfare was inspired, and even the pop fantasia of “Moulin Rouge!” suited the grandly ephemeral illusion of the club and its courtesans. The flourishes brought to “Gatsby” only serve to indulge in the excess that Fitzgerald’s novel intended to criticize, and while I wouldn’t believe that Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce failed to gather as much themselves, the proper plot of the film’s second hour feels like a necessary price to pay for such an elegant kick-off.
Yet it’s in this back half that Carraway finally grasps Gatsby’s long-simmering fondness for Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who is married instead to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and situated just across the bay. The green light at the end of Buchanan’s dock beckons to Gatsby on a nightly basis, just as he hopes his extravagant soirees might re-capture her attentions. In those few moments when the actors’ heightened emotion dominates Luhrmann’s heightened expression -- as Jay and Daisy finally reunite, or when Jay and Tom finally confront one another -- the film clicks, just as the director’s previous takes on star-crossed love occasionally would.
Alas, “Gatsby” is more often consumed with lavish costumes, loud music and limp rehearsals of Fitzgerald’s famous text verbatim, at times even thrown at the screen as part of a clumsily included framing device that sees Nick recalling his woes from the safety of a sanitarium some time after. The book saw no need to remind readers that we were being told a tale, yet Maguire consistently interrupts a film in which he is easily the least distinctive part. And so we wait, wait for the parties to end, wait for sparks to fly, for tragedy to strike, for repercussions to ensue, for our persistently passive protagonist to simply shut up already.
DiCaprio nails the magnetism, despair and fundamental phoniness as new-money Gatsby tries to compete with old-money Buchanan, a role to which Edgerton brings an appropriate fervor. Mulligan is suitably breathy as the object of each man’s affections, although the notion that her character exists beyond being just that is a fleeting one. Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke leave scant impressions as Buchanan’s own mistress and her aloof husband, respectively, while wide-eyed newcomer Elizabeth Debicki and Amitabh Bachchan make a bit more of a mark as Daisy’s gossipy pal and Jay’s shady business partner.
Of course, much mention is made of greedily pursuing the future as a means of repeating the past, which is arguably the approach that Luhrmann himself has embraced with all his modern intrusions, a flashy means to a melodramatic end. In the end, his “Gatsby” takes the fitting form of a cocktail glass, at once undeniably polished and unfailingly empty.
SCORE: 5.8 / 10