F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" tells the story of a man with a shady past who is willing to waste countless millions of dollars in the pursuit of love and respect, so it's no surprise that the story has constantly proven to be catnip for people in the movie business.
Now making its fourth foray onto the big screen, under Baz Luhrmann's uniquely ADHD-fueled supervision, "The Great Gatsby" uses the unbridled excess of the Roaring Twenties as an excuse to unleash the unbridled excess of 21st century digital effects, but we're left with nothing but roar.
See Photos: 'The Great Gasby' New York Premiere
Yes, this 2013 "The Great Gatsby" offers its occasional breathless moments, when we can't quite believe that Luhrmann and his talented crew are going to turn this novel into a soaring, candy-colored phantasmagoria, but once his agenda of swooping camera movements and gleaming roadsters and anachronistic music takes full hold, there's nothing left to fall back on — not even Fitzgerald's prose, much of it quoted directly throughout, is enough to keep this adaptation from feeling like a stunningly expensive advertisement for the Brooks Brothers collection of "Gatsby"-inspired duds.
It's a story you know from reading the book, or at least the Cliff's Notes, in tenth grade: Ambitious young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) comes to New York at the height of the 1920s stock market boom and settles into a bungalow in West Egg, a nouveau-riche section of Long Island. His mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws nightly bacchanals that attract all the movers and shakers of the day, but Nick comes to find out that they exist in the hopes of enticing one special guest: Nick's cousin and Gatsby's lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives directly across the water from Gatsby in the East Egg estate of her rich rotter husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
Daisy loves Gatsby, and Gatsby has money, but he doesn't have the name or position or social power that her husband can offer, and ultimately, Gatsby will discover that no matter what hardships he survived in World War I or how popular his parties are, he's not equipped to swim the same waters as a preppy shark like Tom.
"The Great Gatsby" is an immortal American tragedy, but the story's impact gets completely buried in Luhrmann's flash and dazzle. While his spin on the adolescent angst of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and his over-the-top reimagining of fin de siècle Paris in "Moulin Rouge!" felt like an exciting blend of the classic and the contemporary — heck, even the de trop-itude of "Australia" could be forgiven, thanks to its cornball, old-Hollywood charms — this time out the Luhrmann touch feels more like a smudge, covering up the vitality of the original material.
It doesn't help that the cast feels like they're in different movies — and none of them are movies you'd particularly want to see. The blank and reactive Maguire and Mulligan are cast as the blank and reactive Nick and Daisy, the result being such a vortex of nothing that they threaten to disappear from the screen entirely. Edgerton perspires and chews the scenery in his best Snidely Whiplash manner, while DiCaprio has a fluctuating accent that often sounds like it's being delivered through a mouthful of marshmallows. DiCaprio's utterances of Gatsby's pet endearment "old sport" become more and more cringe-worthy with each repetition.
Luhrmann's style of filmmaking demands a pre-Actor's Studio brand of screen acting, but this bunch is incapable of providing a level of brassy artificiality that matches the movie's. Only newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who comes off like a combination of Rashida Jones and Kristin Scott Thomas, displays any kind of flair or even an approximation of humanity.
Humanity is, in fact, in short supply here, with most of the supporting characters reduced to grotesque mugging and posturing. Luhrmann treats the people of color here like exotic furniture, shooting his African-Americans as though he were planning to turn them into Mammy cookie jars. It's a queasy situation only compounded by the bizarre casting of legendary Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as Gatsby's unsavory associate Meyer Wolfshiem.
The cardinal sin of this new "Gatsby" is that it's dull, and say what you will about Luhrmann's previous movies, that's not an adjective that usually comes up. Here, sadly, you can hear the wheels of the plot grinding as loudly as Gatsby's custom Duesenberg.
This film marks the official moment in which Baz Luhrmann's signature style has become self-parody. So we beat on, boats against the current, jumping the shark.