Baz Luhrmann misses the complexities of ‘The Great Gatsby’

Leonardo DiCaprio is a very good, possibly not great, Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Leonardo DiCaprio is a very good, though possibly not great, Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby.”
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

‘The Great Gatsby’
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

It’s both tragic and nastily enjoyable when people who don’t understand lit classics turn them into films. The funniest part about Baz Luhrmann’s amusingly inappropriate 3-D-plus-Jay-Z film of “The Great Gatsby” comes right at the end. Judgmental but ineffectual blank slate Nick (Tobey Maguire) has been jotting down the novel’s/film’s events, and his musings are eloquent and incisive enough, it appears, to justify being a book. He writes the title: “Gatsby.” But a sentimental mood overtakes him — the loss of a man (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose decency stood out amid a society of cads. So Nick adds “The Great.”

Baz couldn’t even crack open the Cliffs Notes? The idea that the title is not loaded, that it is in fact completely sincere, betrays a dereliction of duty. This capper is the film’s dumbest, forehead-slappiest moment. The rest is brain-drained and simplified, but almost disappointingly inoffensive, even with Bryan Ferry’s jazz-tinged renditions of rap songs blasting as flappers guzzle martinis. Luhrmann’s excess, as Luhrmann will tell you, is almost defensible when portraying a Roaring Twenties bacchanalia.

But he mostly keeps a lid on it. The 3-D isn’t overdone, and is even sometimes well done. The green light from across the harbor, separating Gatsby from Daisy (Carey Mulligan), his unobtainable beloved, gets an extra dimension of longing and impossibility when given a third dimension, especially a fake one. The technology is mostly used on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s actual words, which periodically float onto the screen when they’re uttered — as though Luhrmann could possess their meaning by literally throwing it on the screen, in comin’-at-ya 3-D.

He can’t, in part because he seems to think of “Gatsby” as a sad love story, with Daisy simply kept from Gatsby by mean Tom (Joel Edgerton, a fine actor miscast — although you try to beat Bruce Dern’s spot-on turn in the 1974 version). Luhrmann’s version is faithful to the narrative — not hard when you have 2 ½ hours to tackle a slender work — but without understanding its complexities. Riotous, time-warpy parties and all, Baz plays it straight, or as straight as one can when his actors always look like they’re standing in front of green screen. (Or in Maguire’s case, just staring, mouth mildly agape. A thankless role is the one he was born to play.) Every image looks artificial, and the actors are directed to act like animatronic versions of themselves, to fit in. Only DiCaprio makes it out alive. Where Robert Redford, in the ’74 one, looked the part, DiCaprio does that and nails the desperation, the sketchiness, the charisma and the reckless passion.


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