MOVIE REVIEW: Leonardo DiCaprio brings the charm in classic 'Gatsby'


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Special Photo: Warner Bros. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the title character in "The Great Gatsby."



2 stars out of 4 stars

If you consider his first three films ("Strictly Ballroom," "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge"), Baz Luhrmann was exactly the wrong guy to a tackle a fifth feature adaptation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. However, if you take a look at his fourth ("Australia"), it could be possible for him to successfully render the brittle and tragic text the thoughtful care it demands.

The somewhat good news is that Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce have stuck to the spirit, if not the letter of the novel and when in dramatic mode "Gatsby" excels. Save for one, the eight principal performers are well cast and interpret their characters with the proper amounts of wit, intelligence, cluelessness, acrimony, passivity, frivolity, indulgence, cowardice and self-absorption as needed. From the narrative and acting perspectives, the film hits on all cylinders.

Although given little screen time, Jason Clarke as George Wilson, Isla Fisher as his wife Myrtle and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki as the slinky Jordan Baker add just the right amount of flavoring to the mix. Aussie Joel Edgerton (recently in "Zero Dark Thirty") lends the brutish and calculating Tom Buchanan enough but not too much villainous sneer.

The crucial role of Nick Carraway (regarded by most to be Fitzgerald's surrogate), who acts as the narrator and moral compass was handed to Tobey Maguire. In his best turn since "Seabiscuit," Maguire veers back and forth between wide-eyed innocence and jaundiced disdain (often in the same scene) and is the only character without a hidden or secondary agenda.

As mesmerizing as she was in "An Education," the waifish and mousy Brit Carry Mulligan as Tom's wife Daisy is the weakest cast link. Winning out over other candidates such as Amanda Seyfried, Keira Knightley, Michelle Williams, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman (who would have been the perfect choice), Mulligan is simply too young and innocent looking and sorely lacks the vampish allure and emotional ambivalence the unforgiving role requires.

Rightfully receiving high marks from all who have seen the film, Leonardo DiCaprio (apart from the questionable wardrobe choices) as Gatsby is a fascinating enigma. A poser and a true romantic, Gatsby mistakenly feels his honest intentions and good looks aren't enough to win over the woman of his dreams. His is one of the great tragic figures in all of American literature.

The surprising success of the basic storytelling ingredients are torpedoed into oblivion when Luhrmann being Luhrmann, can't resist top-loading the production his trademark sight and sound orgy that simply doesn't fit Fitzgerald's vision or intent. The movie isn't Luhrmann's interpretation of the novel; it's Luhrmann's reworking of the novel into what it should have been.

With "Gatsby" taking place relatively close to the same time (and with a similar air of decadence) as "Moulin Rouge," Luhrmann just couldn't help himself. Imagine force-feeding 1,000 peacocks way too many paint balls and have them toss their cookies into the air and you'll get an idea of the color palate.

The crayon/art-deco assault also bleeds into the set and costume designs. It's not period piece 1920s but instead a 21st century correction of it. Making sure the audience understands just how wealthy the title character is, Luhrmann and set designer Catherine Martin (also his wife) constructed Gatsby's Long Island home to look less the tasteful Beacon Towers estate Fitzgerald described in the book and more like the Magic Castle at Disneyworld. It is beyond over-the-top.

According the filmmakers, people in the roaring '20s didn't just didn't go to parties to get sloppy drunk and hobnob, they were also called on to perform like a Busby Berkeley dance troupe. Also in Luhrmann's world, people didn't listen to jazz or big band, but rather hip-hop.

From a commercial standpoint it makes complete sense that Luhrmann would draft a high-visibility impresario like Jay-Z to concoct the score. For today's youth, "Gatsby" at its heart is a stuffy, dusty, buzz-killing bore. Taking place before their grandparents were even born, it is beyond uncool. Giving it snappy urban rhythm and turning half of the movie into an extended music video is the only way to rope in anyone under the age of 30.

If you take into account all of the effort put forth in order to modernize the look and feel, it would have made far more sense (and offered an even stronger commercial appeal) to simply adapt the story to the present day. That's the beauty part about "Gatsby" -- its themes are timeless and universal and can be applied to practically any era. When it comes right down to it, the novel is an understated masterwork and a cleverly-crafted commentary on the seven deadly sins -- all of them still being carried out with disquieting efficiency in 2013. (Warner Bros.)