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Movie Review: “The Great Gatsby”

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The Great Gatsby (2013) Well, I suppose Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” could’ve been worse.

A two-and-a-half-hour, $127 million, delayed-by-six-months, 3D adaptation of the celebrated 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, directed by the flamboyant, throw-everything-at-the-kitchen-sink Luhrmann could’ve been a cinematic train wreck of epic proportions. Instead, the worst I can say about ‘Gatsby’ is that it’s severely flawed, and often boring.

This nine-decades-later literary adaptation stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, the mysterious, reclusive billionaire who hosts lavish parties at his Hamptons mansion all, it turns out, as a ruse to attract the attention of his lost love Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan.) DiCaprio’s long-ago running buddy Tobey Maguire is the narrator, Nick Carraway, while Joel Edgerton plays Daisy’s sneering husband Tom Buchanan.

What works here most of all is the visuals. Luhrmann, whatever his faults as a filmmaker, sure knows how to frame a beautiful shot, and the party scenes are especially a highlight. Whether it’s confetti, fireworks or champagne, things are flying all over the place and it’s never less than gorgeous. Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan also make excellent use of 3D, in an age when 3D in most movies is either a big distraction or something that’s barely noticed. The costumes and production design are also impeccable.

The other highlight is DiCaprio, who gives a commanding performance as Gatsby. Delivering Fitzgerald’s dialogue with authority at times and vulnerability at others, this is Leo’s best turn on screen in years.

The supporting cast doesn’t fare nearly as well. Mulligan is luminous and alive for the movie’s first two thirds, before lapsing into Classic Mulligan- vacillating between in tears and on the verge of tears- for the last act. She’s just not up to the part, and neither is Maguire, who has largely been absent from big movies since he stopped playing Spider-man. The character is even more of a cipher on screen as he was on the page.

Mostly unknown Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki- who I was convinced for the first two thirds of the film was Emily Blunt wearing high heels and a fake nose- fares much better as Jordan Baker, but her part has been sanded way down from the book, with her relationship with Carraway all but left on the cutting room floor.

So what doesn’t work? Just about everything else. The film is structured poorly, lags severely in both the middle and the end, and there are a handful of awful storytelling choices. I’m not sure why we needed the framing device of Carraway beginning the film in a mental institution, and I don’t know why the novel’s famous final line- you know, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”- needed to literally be spelled out on screen. Indeed, Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety- every point is made in 52-point all-caps and underlined, with an exclamation point.

Even worse, Luhrmann brings his trademark madcap zaniness to parts of the plot where it absolutely doesn’t belong. I like “Moulin Rouge” a lot- it’s probably the only Luhrmann film that I consider myself a fan of- but applying its tone to “The Great Gatsby” is a mistake.

Another thing that fails by comparison to “Moulin Rouge”? The anachronistic music. I understand that it’s Luhrmann’s thing, and it sort of worked in the 2001 film, largely because the characters did a lot of their own singing. But for some reason Luhrmann scores ‘Gatsby’ largely with contemporary hip-hop and pop from the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce, and it just plain doesn’t work here.

I have nothing against their music, but it just doesn’t fit with this material, especially in a cringe-inducing scene in which the characters pass a car of young black men, who are listening to Jay-Z’s “Izzo (HOVA.)” I can understand the parallels between the reinvented new money existence of Gatsby and the rise of hip-hop culture, but that song is pretty specifically about Jay-Z himself.

In a film set in the Jazz Age, what’s wrong with using, you know, jazz? Gatsby’s phenomenal entrance, to the tune of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” is probably the film’s best moment.

Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” isn’t an embarrassment or a laughingstock, and I thought it might be when it was first announced. It’s nowhere near the disaster of his previous film, 2008′s “Australia,” which was simultaneously an awful costume drama, romance, Western and war film. His ‘Gatsby’ is better than expected but still less than great.

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