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With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Elizabeth Debicki
Written by: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, based on a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language
Language: English
Running Time: 143
Date: 10/05/2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

All Eyes on Them

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby is roundly considered one of the great American novels -- voted the second best of its century in a Random House poll -- but besides that, it's actually a great, zippy read. It's not stuffy or stodgy in the slightest. Yet I'm not sure that makes it a good match for director Baz Luhrmann, who is also not stuffy or stodgy, but does have a considerable lack of depth.

Of Luhrmann's five films to date, only two really stick in the memory, Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001). Both are about passionate and doomed romances, and despite the overwhelming amounts of flash and razzle-dazzle, both films had a strength of feeling. Our hearts really went out to those characters.

Perhaps Luhrmann thought that the passionate, doomed romance of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) would be a nice fit for his canon, but it doesn't entirely work. Gatsy's love isn't so clear-cut, or evenly balanced, and by the time the new movie gets to its second half, Luhrmann seems lost. Even the glitz dies down a bit.

The story centers on Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a disillusioned writer who moves to "West Egg," New York to become a bond trader. He visits his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who is married to an old college chum of his, the champion athlete Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). The mysterious name "Gatsby" keeps coming up. It turns out that Nick lives next door to him. He subsequently receives an invitation to one of Gatsby's lavish weekend parties.

Though guests usually don't rub shoulders with Gatsby in the flesh, Gatsby does appear, and approaches Nick. The reason is that he once fell in love with Daisy -- before her marriage to Tom -- and hopes to win her again. He needs Nick's help. I guess it goes without saying that things don't turn out so well.

At the film's beginning, in his narration, Nick praises Gatsby for being the most hopeful person he has ever met, but in the movie, Gatsby comes across as more unrealistically obsessed than hopeful. Likewise, Luhrmann frames the story with images of a burned-out, pale, frazzled Nick relating his story to a psychotherapist. This suggests that the entire story is not tragic so much as it is exhausting.

Exhausting is really the best word for this long, 2 hour and 23-minute movie, where wild parties turn into cluttered messes and fuzzy hangovers. Passion doesn't seem to have a place here. No one wants anything but a good time, even if those good times generally lead to bad times. Gatsby wants Daisy, of course, but his want comes across as a kind of ferocious collecting, rather than as a satisfying connecting of two souls.

The genius of the book is that all of this stuff happens at a slight remove. Gatsby is never completely understood, only seen through the eyes of others, and his romance and ideals are imbued deeper meanings. Here, fleshed out and embodied by DiCaprio, the character becomes too real and far less useful.

After all is said and done, there's not much left but Luhrmann's usual glamorous cinematography -- this time with 3D added -- and set and costume designs. Expect a few Oscar nominations next year for these things, but the movie itself will probably be about as memorable as Robert Redford's ill-fated 1974 attempt at the same novel.

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