By CHRIS HEWITT
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” isn’t very good but it sure is purty.
This new version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has some fine ideas. To capture how young people took over the culture during the Jazz Age, Lurhmann uses contemporary pop music (Florence and the Machine, Jay-Z), which keeps his “Gatsby” from feeling like PBS. And the whiz-bang, largely computer-generated images give the story about characters who are mostly liars a deliberately surreal quality that looks even less realistic if you’re watching this “Gatsby” in 3-D.
Trouble is, the houses, rooms and clothes are so eye-poppingly gorgeous that you barely notice there are people in them. Luhrmann lavishes care on the look of the movie but, especially in the early scenes, his camera is so busy zooming all over the place and the editing is so busy carving up even a simple conversation into disorienting rhythms that it’s as if he forgot to help the actors create characters. You leave this version of what may be the most thoughtful and richly American novel thinking that it was made by someone with a deep understanding of fabrics and chandeliers.
Somewhere in here there is a story, narrated by outsider Nick Carroway. It’s the mid-1920s and impoverished Nick (Tobey Maguire) has moved into a cottage next to the enormomansion of mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jay begins a doomed affair by asking Nick to invite over his married cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), a socialite who can get Gatsby all broody and sad if you just mention her name. “Careless people,” Nick calls Daisy, her husband and their friends, who party and love selfishly, whereas he says Gatsby is “the single most hopeful person I’ve ever met.”
As the movie gets further into the story, the Michael Bay-like camerawork and editing settle down enough for us to begin to see the actors: Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan Baker is so vibrant you wish Gatsby would fall for her instead of Mulligan’s wan Daisy, Jason Clarke brings real passion as a bystander whose life is ruined by carelessness and there are moments when DiCaprio gets closer than you’d think possible to helping us understand one of the most enigmatic characters in all of literature.
But those performers don’t connect because Luhrmann doesn’t let them.
Even the tragedy that brings everything to a head is more about “that looks cool” than “that is heartbreakingly sad.”
Unfortunately, there’s a sense that the most vividly human moments in this “Great Gatsby” occur in spite of Luhrmann.
I totally understood his attraction to the youthful passions of “Romeo and Juliet” and the music-means-everything pyrotechnics of “Moulin Rouge” but I left “Great Gatsby” still not knowing why he likes the book, what inspired him to direct this film. And I kind of wonder if he knows, either.