The least interesting aspects of Baz Luhrmann’s unsurprisingly lavish near-musical adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” come from the source material. That should surprise exactly no one. More to the point, the sprawling tale of millionaire loner Jay Gatsby (a confident Leonardo DiCaprio) yearning to be reunited with former flame Daisy (Carey Mulligan on mopey autopilot) has been rendered as a series of soap opera interludes in between the director’s typically dazzling setpieces. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel certainly has its fair share of melodrama, but Luhrmann never displays any interest in finding its emotional core. Released in ostentatious 3D, set to a contemporary soundtrack by Jay-Z and shot with a soaring virtual camera that celebrates every corner of the affluent scenario, Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” has the hallmarks of a contemporary Hollywood spectacle. It’s missing the explosions, but make no mistake: “Gatsby” is one glitzy misfire.
Ever since the global dominance of the “Transformers” franchise, Michael Bay has been singled out as the reigning king of studio-produced indulgences. Luhrmann, whose attempt at old school Hollywood romance with “Australia” bombed hard, may not have quite the same track record for pandering to audiences’ basest sensibilities. Yet his take on “Gatsby” suffers the same hollow style-over-substance issues — in this case, flimsily obscured by mock allegiance to a classy text — that have assailed Bay’s movies. The difference is that Bay owns up to it.
Much of the plot in “Gatsby” is unchanged: In 1922, Crestfallen narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, the most believable, impressive screen presence for the duration of the movie) moves out to the North Shore of Long Island, right next door to the elusive Gatsby, whose expensive house parties unfold like gigantic, champagne-fueled Jazz Age clichés. Gatsby eventually enlists Nick to help him win back Daisy, Carraway’s cousin, in spite of her marriage to the confident Tom Buchanan (a stern Joel Edgerton). Romance ensues, followed by inevitable tragedy, setting the stage for a grand prelude to the Great Depression — one last hurrah before history’s dark turns take over. Luhrmann nails the hurrah but fails to rein it in. The movie is consumed by the same excess that Fitzgerald’s novel treats skeptically. Even the omniscient eyes of T.J. Eckleberg on the billboard near town, an iconic image emblazoned on the cover of “Gatsby” for decades, has been rendered as yet another colorful prop in the filmmaker’s collage of technical achievements.
It’s impossible not to admire Luhrmann’s penchant for candy-colored displays. He announces Gatsby’s arrival in a marvelous tableaux set to the crescendo of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” with DiCaprio introducing himself to Maguire against the backdrop of a house party. Fireworks erupt on cue. The moment is so elegantly timed that viewers may feel compelled to applaud. But when nitty gritty plot details arrive, “Gatsby” turns hopelessly theatrical, with tensions flaring between the main characters in a series of rushed confrontations that play second fiddle to gratuitous sets seemingly divorced from the actions they depict: a slo-mo car crash looks cool first, creates a modicum of suspense second. A party scene in which Nick and Tom cavort with a group of women in a cramped New York apartment stands out for its speed and fashion more than its relevance to the narrative.
Beyond that, the contemporary soundtrack is more jarring than the arrival of hip hop in “Django Unchained,” a movie that did a better job of marrying cartoonish sensibilities with a historical framework. In Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” the music cues might be an obvious grab at shifting the material into an allegory for modern times, but they have the same distracting qualities of an ostentatious CGI feat: Look over here!
At least “Transformers” doesn’t try to mask its pricey treats with self-serious drama. Luhrmann seems to relish the opportunity to explore the period while regarding the book as a burden. And yet, like Bay, Lurhmann has an undeniable ability to churn out grandiose cinematic tapestries. In “Moulin Rouge,” the ubiquitous flashiness fit the proceedings. He has arguably never done better than 1996’s “Romeo + Juliet,” which smartly found the contemporary genre hooks in Shakespeare’s story while keeping the intensity of the source material intact. “Gatsby,” by contrast, falls into the same trappings of its characters, whom Nick famously derides for “retreating into their money and vast carelessness.” Bound to make many millions of dollars, “Gatsby” is a familiar story in more ways than one.
Criticwire grade: C-