'The Great Gatsby' 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio & Baz Luhrmann Shine But Story Essence Lost

The Great Gatsby 2013 Leonardo DiCaprioThe Great Gatsby 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Great Gatsby 2013: Leonardo DiCaprio & Baz Luhrmann shine bright, but story's 'small, sad truths' lost in the glitz

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is the best version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel ever committed to the screen. But don't get too excited. The bar is very low. The book has been made into three feature films, including a 1926 silent film regrettably lost, and one TV movie. The last big screen version was in 1974, a Jack Clayton-directed misfire that starred a lifeless Robert Redford in the title role. Here, the doomed personification of the money-solves-everything American thesis is played by a winning Leonardo DiCaprio who shines like an old-fashioned movie star. But shining even brighter than DiCaprio in this $127,000,000 production is, of course, its director. (Image: Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby.)

For better or worse, Baz Luhrmann is a brand name, a noun that can double as an adjective. You know exactly what you're getting when you step into one of his funhouses of color, sound, and CGI, and to expect something else is to criticize Baz Luhrmann for making a Baz Luhrmann film. And yet, in the context of this source material, his over-the-top rendering of the bubbly bacchanalias that establish the heights from which Gatsby must fall is completely justified and one of the more appropriate uses of Luhrmann's gifts.

Where his iteration of the venerated source material teeters is when the hip-hop music stops playing, the champagne stops flowing, and Gatsby's true motivations are revealed. Subtleties of mood and the complexities of multiple, intertwining characters are just not in Luhrmann's wheelhouse.

The Great Gatsby 2013: 'Mild success' lacking 'emotional swing'

I guess one can say, with apologies to Duke Ellington, “it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that emotional swing” – the one that sees Gatsby devolve from post-WWI hedonist to heartbreakingly empty soul who has destroyed himself trying to reclaim the love of Daisy Buchanan (played by Carey Mulligan). That said, Luhrmann did get closer to the target than many would have thought possible, certainly enough to proclaim The Great Gatsby a mild success. It's also fair to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald's third and most celebrated novel may just be too difficult to translate to the screen effectively.

The Great Gatsby was originally slated for release in December 2012, but was pulled from the Warner Bros. schedule. This is never a good sign, no matter how a studio spins it. With the extra months of reconsideration, Luhrmann should have scaled back the WTF framing device, where a suicidally alcoholic Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) sits in a sanitarium furiously writing about his time with Gatsby like a Jazz Era Jack Kerouac.

With his ever-boyish face always in a state of slight wonderment, Maguire goes from innocent to less innocent, which is the smallest arc one can travel with this character and still make it work. As Nick conveys via narration (which also should have been scaled back), he came to New York with dreams of being a bond trader in the heady, pre-Crash year of 1922. He has taken residence in an unimpressive home in West Egg, Long Island, right across the sound from his cousin Daisy (Mulligan) and her insensitive, racist husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, well-cast).

One can't imagine what attracted Daisy to Tom in the first place, although his massive amounts of inherited wealth would be a good guess. This contrasts nicely with Gatsby who, as we know from novel and film, came from nothing and earned his fortune through the hard work that became synonymous with American moxie (or, one can argue, American folly).

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