Call it “The Grating Gatsby.”
Although the incurably exuberant Baz Luhrmann had the glitter factories and sequin mines working overtime, his glitzed-up “Gatsby” is dishwater dull. Because he has an eye for spectacle but is deaf to emotional detail, he has turned an exquisitely told story of doomed romance into a 3-D production with all the depth of a pop-up book.
Given his track record of exhilarating success with flashy music videos like “Strictly Ballroom” and “Moulin Rouge,” and train-wreck failure with more narrative projects like his incoherent epic “Australia,” we might have expected subtle literary material to be beyond his grasp. But who would have predicted that Luhrmann, the P.T. Barnum of supercharged excess, would make Jazz Age decadence such a drag?
Like Gatsby’s overheated fantasy of his unattainable beloved, Luhrmann has decked out his film “with every bright feather that drifted his way.” The cheerful dissonance of watching flappers and swells rave to Jay-Z quickly fades, and the movie plods on like a sixth-period American Lit class.
Leonardo DiCaprio (a heartthrob lead for Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet”) plays mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, whose all-night soirées at his palatial West Egg manse attract the cream (and dregs) of New York society. He’s the subject of wild rumors, many circulated by himself. Chasing his blinkered vision of the American dream, he reinvents himself and racks up riches outside the law. Tobey Maguire is our narrator, Nick Carraway, here an onscreen stand-in for F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing a memoir of his encounters with Gatsby while riding out “morbid alcoholism” at a snowbound Midwestern sanitarium. Ethereal Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s second cousin and Gatsby’s object of desire. Joel Edgerton is her possessive old-money husband, Tom, whose baleful squint and Hitler-style mustache sum up his character.
Each of them seems to be acting in a different movie. DiCaprio conveys Gatsby’s passion with a gaze that suggests advanced constipation. Mulligan operates in two modes — Doe-Eyed Stare for languid moments, and Mascara Eruption for high drama. Edgerton attacks every line of dialogue like a bull in a porcelain showroom. Maguire drifts through his performance with the vacant smile of a forgettable lad sitting for his high school portrait.
Fitzgerald’s novel is a peculiar mix of staggeringly literal symbolism (the billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, occulist, launched a million term papers) and oblique psychology. The main character is a cipher. What the players think can be inferred, though only up to a point, by the epigrammatic things they say. The film’s solution to these difficulties is to pull out every visual gimmick, from period newsreel footage to Mach-10 zooms. Wall Street’s pre-Crash jitters are invoked by two separate point-of-view shots from the cockpits of airplanes power-diving toward the financial district’s sidewalks. Because one just wouldn’t make the point.
The ever-writhing camera captures some powerful images. After a teasing half-hour offscreen, DiCaprio makes his entrance to an orchestral burst of Gershwin and a volley of fireworks. More often, Lurhmann’s grand gestures are unrelated to the emotional point of a given scene, like exclamation points randomly strewn throughout a sentence. Luhrmann’s notion of honoring Fitzgerald’s text is to type out key phrases on the screen and stereoscopically float the letters out over our heads. Like Fitzgerald’s narrator, watching this gaudy mess, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled.” But mostly? Bored.