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The not-so-great Gatsby'

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Literary adaptation more sizzle than steak

Turning a literary classic into a cinematic one is no easy task. Many talented filmmakers have tried and failed to bring a great novel to life on the screen.

Baz Luhrmann is taking a swing with his latest, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 'The Great Gatsby.' The novel, first published in 1925, is deemed by many to be on the short list of contenders for the best American novel ever written.

It's a tale told by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire, 'The Details'), a young Yale graduate who has moved to New York to become a bond trader. He rents an old carriage house in the town of West Egg on Long Island, a haven for the nouveau riche of the 1920s. His next door neighbor is a mysterious (and wildly wealthy) man known for his excess. His name is Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, 'Django Unchained').

Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan, 'Drive') lives in nearby East Egg with her wealthy husband (and Nick's Yale classmate) Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, 'Zero Dark Thirty'). While visiting her, he meets and befriends the noted golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki, 'A Few Best Men') and starts to learn more about his enigmatic neighbor.

Before long, Nick finds himself swept up into Gatsby's world a world of lavish mansions, never-ending parties and an ongoing deluge of secrets secrets of love, loss and deceptions galore.

'The Great Gatsby' is undeniably stunning to look at. Director Luhrmann (who also adapted the novel for the screen) has long been known for painting visual pictures that manage to precariously tiptoe along the line between vivid and lurid. 'Gatsby' never loses its balance in that regard it's a beautiful movie to look at.

Luhrmann's style also relies heavily on the marrying of period consciousness with soundtracks that are intended to capture a moment in time. He did it with his 'Romeo and Juliet' and with 'Moulin Rouge' and this one is no different, loaded with songs by modern artists (Jay-Z is everywhere in this movie he's even an executive producer). The conceit works here Fitzgerald's tale was partially powered by the music of the era; so too is Luhrmann's.

The performances are uneven. Maguire's Nick Carraway is callow and uninteresting; almost every note he strikes on screen rings with a falsity that separates him from the story. Mulligan has moments of brilliance as Daisy, but she never escapes a general feeling of stability Daisy is a woman who is broken, perhaps irreparably; Mulligan never fully captures that sad desperation. 

However, Edgerton is outstanding as Tom Buchanan he inhabits and somehow humanizes a man who is inherently a cad and a scoundrel. It's powerful work from an underrated actor. Debicki is charming and charismatic; her Jordan Baker offers an edgy counterpoint to Daisy's etherealness.

And then there's the man himself.

DiCaprio is magnificent in this role. He's perfect. He's probably the only actor in his generation properly equipped to play this part. He has the golden-boy look, the inherent acting ability and an obvious and deep-seated desire for greatness. He offers a nuanced and powerful performance at least up until the film's final act, where he along with everyone and everything else completely jumps the rails.

The biggest problem with 'The Great Gatsby' is that the filmmakers Luhrmann in particular seem to have lost sight of much of what makes the novel an American classic. His use of an institutionalized Nick Carraway as a narrator/framing device feels forced. The overwhelming focus on visual splendor and the doomed love story causes much of the novel's actual point to fall by the wayside (and let's not bother discussing the clearly unnecessary 3D retrofit). 

While the Roaring Twenties was undeniably an era of decadent excess, that doesn't mean that the entire movie has to be framed that way. That pick-and-choose attitude toward the source material has resulted in a film that surrounds snippets of profundity and excellence with lengthy chunks of big-budget music video sensibility.

'The Great Gatsby' isn't a bad movie in fact, I probably liked it more than this review would indicate. But it is an undeniably flawed piece, marred by an aesthetic into which this story was never meant to be shoehorned.

2.5 out of 5

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