Just because a film looks like it was dipped in 18-karat gold doesn’t mean it’s rich in quality.
Take this 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Though every frame overflows with opulence, it stumbles in its quest to be an edgy and thoroughly modern spectacle.
A CliffsNotes plot summary, just in case anyone dozed off during 10th grade English: In the Roaring 1920s, writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, bland) helps facilitate a reunion between dashing and mysteriously wealthy neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his married cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) on New York’s Long Island. (Five years earlier, Gatsby and Daisy were in the throes of love during his infantry training for World War I, but then Daisy had to go and get married to a jerk aristocrat). Not long after the two lock eyes again in Carraway’s home, they resume their passionate — albeit ill-fated — affair.
English teachers obsess on the book’s symbolism and introspective prose; director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) obsesses over his own visual flourishes. Remember Gatsby’s over-the-top, glitzy parties in his West Egg mansion? Here, the soiree scenes are overindulgent, with each piece of confetti and drop of champagne seemingly earning an extended close-up. The fabulousness exhausts in a hurry. Trust: You’ve seen one flapper dancing on a banquette, you’ve seen them all.
In a superfluous quirk, Nick’s words are flashed on the screen as he narrates. Why? Even Luhrmann apparently grows tired of the device, as it disappears midway through the 143-minute drama.
But the music, you cry, the music! Yep, similar to Moulin Rouge, the film is laced with a Top 40 soundtrack — this time courtesy of Jay-Z, Fergie, Andre 3000, Florence + the Machine, Beyonce and Jack White. And it's easy to smile when “H to the Izzo” plays on blast as Carraway and Gatsby roll through a gleaming New York in a yellow Rolls Royce. Then the gimmick goes from amusing to distracting. When Gatsby and Daisy frolic to a jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” there’s a good chance audiences will be more fixated on who’s crooning the cover than the romance at hand. (Answer: R&B singer Emeli Sande).
All these bells and 21st century-whistles result in a jittery, emotionally adrift narrative. Carraway rhapsodizes about the couple’s hot-blooded romance, yet their chemistry is barely detectable. They don’t even share a single memorable scene together! A rash of quick-cut flashbacks to Gatsby’s past adds to the ADD-like viewing experience.
Mulligan doesn't get a free pass here. The ethereal actress, who reportedly beat the likes of Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson for the role, only succeeds in looking radiant in her sparkly Prada gowns and diamond-encrusted headbands. She fails to embody Daisy’s beguiling charm and sophistication, withering next to the reliably solid DiCaprio. In fact, DiCaprio doesn’t get to truly shine until the closing act when he breaks free from Mulligan and Maguire and goes for a swim in his backyard pool. And that moment is. . . fleeting.
For a movie that strives to be Great, it all feels just a little too average.