‘The Great Gatsby’

Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby sits at a tea partyThe new film version of “The Great Gatsby” confronts us with two puzzles. One, why has F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Jazz Age novel, often considered the Great American Novel, so sternly resisted a decent film adaptation?

Baz Luhrmann is the latest filmmaker to fall victim to F. Scott’s siren song only to wind up dashed on the rocks of despair. I doubt this will be the last such attempt.

Second, if Will Shakespeare can survive and even thrive in the Baz Luhrmann Experience (in his frisky and outstanding “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”), then why does Luhrmann fail so with F. Scott?

Maybe it’s the same question.

Clearly, a Baz Luhrmann film coming at you in 3D is not posturing as a deep-dish literary adaptation. One expects only the surfaces of the novel and indeed that’s what you get in this “Gatsby.” But on its own terms, that might have worked. Gatsby’s lifestyle has a gleaming surface after all.

So where lies the failure of this not so great Gatsby?

I think this may be a film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do. Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin — who serves not only as co-producer but production and costume designer — make the story into one long party with an untethered camera swooping around a digital recreation of Jazz Age parties like none that the Age ever experienced.

The movie floats through an artificial world of writers and bootleggers, blue-bloods and gangsters, men of easy morals and women of easy virtue. In an alternate universe were Universal Studios to turn Gatsby into a theme-park attraction a la Harry Potter, it would look much like this movie.

Indeed “float” is the operative word. Images from the novel such as the empty billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg and the blinking green light at the end of Daisy’s dock float without meaning here, marking instead reference points for those who have read the novel.

Jazz Age party occupies Jay Gatsby's mansioinAware that one of its characters, Nick Carroway (Toby Maguire), is writing the story as we watch it, Luhrmann lets Fitzgerald’s words and sentences float incongruously on the screen. Why?

Equally problematic is the uneven casting. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t begin to suggest the vulgar, unchanging character of Jay Gatsby. He tries by holding himself aloof (until the near end) from his circle of “friends,” who are no friends at all, and Tom & Daisy Buchanan’s crowd.

But this only suggests a great absence at the center of the film. Fitzgerald intended the novel as social criticism. He was starting to see cracks in the American dream, the poor boy making good and getting the top girl. Gatsby achieves the first shabby goal but the girl, who turns out to be rotten to the core, remains elusive.

The movie ignores this. Of course, in many ways, Fitzgerald’s story is not about Gatsby so much as Nick, his alter ego and witness to the story.

Maguire has the necessary naiveté in the flashbacks that constitute most of the movie and the moral disgust as a writer relating the story in a clinic (run by a doctor played by Aussie vet Jack Thompson) where he has gone to dry out.

Great Gatsby's Elizabeth Debicki surveys party sceneBut he is too lightweight throughout, more Spider-Man than Writer-Man. He doesn’t look like he could compose a letter to his mom.

In the novel Nick comes to see the Buchanans are morally despicable people but this fails to come through in the movie. Luhrmann’s cameras are too bedazzled by Carey Mulligan’s Daisy; she is the object of desire for both Gatsby and Luhrmann. This may be the fault of casting or of limited screen time to establish Daisy Buchanan.

More to the point are Joel Edgerton as the philandering Tom and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (left) as the immoral though honest golf pro Jordan Baker. Edgerton has the crass arrogance of old money and Debicki the charm and exotic looks for a person of limited purpose and morals.

Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke as the vital and vibrant Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, and George Wilson, her drab husband, fit the bill as well but the visual razzle-dazzle pushes them to the margins of the movie.

Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan turns up in a one-scene role as a Jewish gangster Fitzgerald modeled after Arnold Rothstein. Unfortunately, he makes little impression in that scene, becoming merely one more of the many people who use Gatsby until he is no longer of any use.

Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce, seems less and less interested in actors or performances in his filmmaking. The sheer superficiality of the acting here is symptomatic of the actors’ inability to register amid all the glam and noise of this “Gatsby.”

Martin’s costume and production designs, the playfully anachronistic soundtrack by exec producer Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and fireworks that accompany nearly every party Gatsby throws hold sway over the film. The 3D, a gimmick among many here, adds virtually nothing.

Finally, Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is reductive. By adding so much CGI opulence in his more-is-more approach, he takes away from Fitzgerald’s intended purpose. The film tries to borrow lines and passages from the book for its narration, not to mention those floating words, but ultimately, it takes more away from Fitzgerald with each passing minute.

Opens: May 9, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and A&E Television a Bazmark/Red Wagon Entertainment production
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Screenwriters: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Based on the novel by: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Producers: Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, Douglas Wick, Lucy Fisher
Executive producers: Barrie M. Osborne, Bruce Berman, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter
Director of photography: Simon Duggan
Production designer/costume designer: Catherine Martin
Music: Craig Armstrong
Editors: Matt Villa, Jason Ballantine Jonathan Redmond
PG-13 rating, 142 minutes