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The Great Gatsby

Baz Luhrmann infuses the Fitzgerald classic with lots of life but little soul

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            Though Luhrmann does respect Fitzgerald’s words, he doesn’t always respect their meaning. The director apparently envisioned the novel not as a character study and societal commentary, but as a 3-D spectacular with rap and hip-hop existing alongside jazz and blues. If that sounds ridiculous, you may be pleasantly surprised, as the modern music is used more sparingly than advertised. Gershwin and other period tunes are sprinkled in, and the soundtrack in the second half is fairly traditional. Still, the unconventional musicality comes across as little more than a cool gimmick and not the eclectic infusion of energy that the director had hoped for.

            Luhrmann’s problems stem not so much from his choice of musical genre, though, as from his overemphasis on music in general, not to mention the frenetic visuals, which fly by so quickly in the film’s first half that one barely has time to digest them. The depictions of Gatsby’s “kaleidoscope carnival” notwithstanding, this isn’t a tale suited to aesthetic overload, but instead a brooding, heartbreaking story of lost love, obsession and societal divisions. To do it justice, Luhrmann needed more Ingmar Bergman and less Busby Berkeley.

            Despite that muddying of meaning, Luhrmann’s film leaps to life in stunning fashion. With superb art direction, the settings come alive but still retain a dreamlike quality. The 3-D camerawork is admittedly more impressive during the CGI moments and less so during interior scenes, when out-of-focus foreground objects dominate the composition. Yet for all this amazing aesthetic, the movie projects little emotion. After all, when Gatsby’s dream dies, so dies the American Dream, but we can’t truly hear that death above Luhrmann’s cacophony of sight and sound.

            The cast does a fair job but doesn’t always connect to us emotionally. DiCaprio is competent but can’t top Redford’s performance in the 1974 film. The latter imbued the role with class and an inexplicable mix of sadness and hopefulness. DiCaprio, especially in his first few scenes, often comes across as a spoiled buffoon, someone who thinks he is worthy of Daisy’s love simply because of the money he has made. THAT is not the true Gatsby. The older film had its flaws too, often failing to show much life, but it did have more soul.

            Daisy is practically an unplayable part, but Carey Mulligan does her best, outdoing Mia Farrow from the 1974 version. However, Joel Edgerton as her slimy husband, Tom, is invisible at times, lacking the passion, the naturalism and the slime of the Bruce Dern turn from the aforementioned adaptation. Tobey Maguire, as Nick, simply does what’s asked of him, which is also all that can be said for Sam Waterston, who played the part 39 years ago.  

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