Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby begins, appropriately enough, with decoration—a gold-filigreed frame that accordions outward in 3-D before suddenly cutting to a swimmy shot of some water, under a voice-over that dopily bastardizes the book's opening lines.
Then, yet another framing device. Turns out Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the always-just-outside-the-action narrator of Gatsby, is telling the entire story of the movie to his psychologist. The poor kid's both Carraway and Caulfield.
Well, it's always good to let the crowd know what they're in for: a little bit of pretty, a little bit of confusion, a whole lot of stupid.
But you can go a long way in this world being pretty and stupid, and it doesn't mean you don't have a heart. Luhrmann's 1920s New York is a phantasmagoric spectacle—one second it's a psychedelic Busby Berkeley routine, the next it's a neo-realist version of The Hudsucker Proxy—and the script lobotomizes the novel's dialogue into amazing subcamp clunkers like, "I'm taking her away from you, Carraway! Rich girls don't marry poor boys. She's mine!"
But while Luhrmann's Gatsby is a far cry from the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is in its own way quite affecting: Badly married silver-spooner Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and besmirched tycoon Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) have been cast here not as cautionary tales about ambition and old money and the intractability of the past, but as star-crossed lovers. From Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge, it's the story Luhrmann understands.
Even as the camera lurches around like a drunken wasp, the actors are often treated with a blessedly soft touch: Maguire mushmouths his way around his bystander role with characteristic humility, while Elizabeth Debicki, as fellow bystander Jordan Baker, buys herself into a movie career with a feline self-possession bordering on inhuman.
DiCaprio, meanwhile, plays the kid from Titanic grown up into a clueless Howard Hughes, though his pathological quest to buy off his past and his girl with a hydroplane of ill-gotten money is portrayed as the height of dreamy nobility. (It ain't for nothing Jay-Z's a producer of the film.) Gatsby's the poor boy made good, against the odds, to get the girl, and the dirty money never seems to stain his suit.
Daisy's a nice girl, too; it seems Luhrmann left out the quotation marks around "nice" that Fitzgerald took care to add. She's almost too sympathetic in Mulligan's capable hands—the wounded object of male need, stripped naked by her suitors—for her callow decisions to make sense. Her husband, meanwhile, is even more of a lout than he is in the novel.
So it's not just Gatsby who's doomed in the end; it's Gatsby. The movie's a high-drama, high-saturation emotional spectacle. And though it's often effective in roping the viewer in, it has all the subtlety of a young drunk who's just been left by his girlfriend. Eventually, as he keeps loudly repeating himself, all you want is an excuse to turn back to your own drink.
The contemporary soundtrack, despite a lot of knee-jerk criticism and a silly scene on a bridge, isn't overly distracting. It's easy to understand why rap substitutes for jazz: It is the modern equivalent, blending low-brow fun and high-rolling bank accounts with a leftover frisson of danger. But this, of course, assumes the audience is too dumb to understand the role jazz played in the 1920s—that the music, like the hilariously hamfisted script, must be translated into only the most familiar terms.
The novel, for all the Jazz Age frenzy it depicts, plays a much softer music—and it is this music one recalls when thinking back on the book, the sadness and the subtle sense of doom contained in every misbegotten line uttered by its characters.
Funny that in such a musical film, this music is the one thing Luhrmann couldn't hear.
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Cornelius, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, City Center, Fox Tower, Evergreen Parkway, Lloyd Mall, Eastport, Division, Tigard, Movies on TV, Sherwood, Sandy.