By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Aussie director Baz Luhrmann is nothing if not out there.
His films (Moulin Rouge!, Strictly Ballroom, Australia) are, in general, artistically ambitious, stubbornly idiosyncratic, unrestrained and audience-dividing, and ostentatious but undeniably accomplished.
So Mr. More-Is-More’s decision to adapt the beloved literary classic, The Great Gatsby — a slim, vivid novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald — into a high-profile extravaganza for the movie screen for a fourth time (in 3-D, no less) should come as only a mild surprise.
And that it should be not a masterpiece, not an outrage, but a passable interpretation should be unsurprising as well.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as enigmatic, self-made, newly minted millionaire Jay Gatsby, master of hope and hype, well-known throughout West Egg, a fictionalized nouveau-riche section of Long Island, for his elegantly extravagant lifestyle and the lavish, excessive, and crowded parties he hosts.
He’s befriended by Midwesterner war veteran Nick Carraway, an aspiring writer played by Tobey Maguire, a neighbor of Gatsby’s during what has come to be known as the Roaring ’20s.
The narrator of the novel and the film, Carraway is the cousin of the striking and strikingly shallow Daisy Buchanan, played by Carey Mulligan, who lives across the bay in old-moneyed East Egg and just happens to be the love of Gatsby’s life.
Gatsby is obsessed with winning back Daisy’s love. But one tiny hitch in his plan is the fact that she’s married to Tom, the bullying philanderer played by Joel Edgerton, who happens to be having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, played by Isla Fisher.
The romantic geometry tells you that few if any of these principals are going to end up getting what -– or whom -– they want.
Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz Age novel about class, ambition, and conspicuous consumption is set in 1922 and offers an examination of the corrupting influence of wealth, of the hedonism ironically characteristic of the Prohibition era, of the empty pursuit of status and “success” through the eyes of an obsessive American dreamer as the Great Depression becomes an inevitability.
Luhrmann, who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Craig Pearce, embraces the renewed and perhaps enhanced relevance of the material in these troubled financial times, but despite the fact that the novel was written from Nick Carraway’s point of view, Luhrmann has directed the movie as if Jay Gatsby had been in charge of production.
His film is visually sumptuous, and appropriately so given the subject matter. But the look of the film seems to be what matters most. This is the movie equivalent of one of Gatsby’s no-expense-spared parties.
And whereas Fitzgerald saw the decadent parties as emblematic of out-of-control values, Luhrmann gives them a bit too much of a come-hither sheen.
His style of directing makes it that much tougher for any of the actors to really break through the hubbub. And, sure enough, no one does.
DiCaprio, whose consistently fine work in film after film we take very much for granted, is capable if not consummate, collaborating once again with Luhrmann, for whom he played Romeo in 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, in a role previously played by such actors as Warner Baxter in 1926, Alan Ladd in 1949, and Robert Redford in 1974.
Executive producer Jay Z also produced the soundtrack, with its anachronistic use of contemporary tunes that manages to register without being intrusive.
This is, interestingly enough, an opulent movie the reach of which somewhat exceeds its grasp about the very subject of reach exceeding grasp.
But there’s much of value as well. And while it may not be the definitive version, none of the others were either.
So we’ll move next door to 2½ stars out of 4 for Baz Luhrmann’s handsome and even thoughtful but still overstuffed version of Fitzgerald’s influential novel. The Great Gatsby isn’t great, but at least it doesn’t grate -– which is greatly appreciated.