F. Scott Fitzgerald cast a harsh light on the 1920s in "The Great Gatsby," showing that no matter how opulent the facade, what lies behind is a decaying dream victimized by those too blind to see the mistakes being made.
The same can be said of Baz Luhrmann's big-screen adaptation. The director gets so obsessed with visual fancy that he fails to reach the heart of the story: The decomposing American Dream told through the fates of star-crossed lovers. His film is more a love story set against the Roaring '20s. What should have been an exposé on a time of social and economic upheaval ends up as watered down as the liquor of the era.
Luhrmann's two greatest strengths are the stellar performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious Jay Gatsby and the visual splendor of each scene.
DiCaprio's casting is a lot like the selection of Robert Redford for the 1974 adaptation of Fitzgerald's work. Both actors have the on-screen charisma that makes it easy to believe that Gatsby could charm his way up the social ladder. From the moment DiCaprio appears on screen, every gesture, line delivery and look is designed to show Gatsby as this complicated character consumed equally by his passions and his secrets.
The life he brings to the part is so impressive that DiCaprio's work should be kept in mind when Oscar nominations are considered.
Luhrmann uses the same visual approach that made "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge" such spectaculars. There is a frantic pace to the way he tells the story, from the amplified gyrations of dancers to the consumption of anything decadent. It's as if the director needs to fill each frame with images so stunning that they make us breathless. His imagery is so compelling, the 3D is just an added expenditure that does nothing.
This all gets accented by the blend of music, which goes from tunes of the period to contemporary work. This would have been jarring if Luhrmann's directing approach didn't give every scene a touch of fantasy.
These are powerful elements, but they are not strong enough to mask the movie's major problems with script and casting.
Because the adaptation of Fitzgerald's work by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce concentrates on the love story, it loses the social commentary that makes the book such a classic. Instead of seeing the dark side of the life that Gatsby has to live to feel on the same economic level as his true love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), it is treated as an annoying means to an end.
All of those lavish parties should have been less depicted as the social event of the year and more as a feeble attempt to disguise the real and dark problems of the world that can't be danced away.
Strip away the commentary Fitzgerald made on the era and all you have is a love story with the depth of a Nicholas Sparks romance novel.
The other problem is the casting. While Mulligan, at times, is the frail beauty of Fitzgerald's story, she never completely transforms into the social moth that Gatsby tries to lure to his flame. Her efforts are passible.
The same can't be said for Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. It's Carraway's job to be the old-soul voice commenting on this new world decadence.
Maguire doesn't show the maturity this performance needs to be the conduit for the audience. That's the biggest reason the book's deep messages never become clear in this big-screen adaptation.
In the end, this "Gatsby" is merely good -- not great.
MOVIE REVIEW"The Great Gatsby," rated PG-13 for adult situations, violence, drug use. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Elizabeth Debicki, Joel Edgerton. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Running time: 143 minutes. Grade: C
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.