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'The Great Gatsby' review: Underwhelming state of mind

** (out of four)

For all the exaggerated rumors swirling about Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), you’d think he was Chuck Norris. He's a German spy! He kills for fun! He's richer than God!

Does he also pay his bills with a roundhouse kick to a bank vault?

A main point of F. Scott Fitzgerald's arguably overrated Jazz Age classic “The Great Gatsby” is that Gatsby's not the enigma he appears to be. He's merely a man in love with the past and his past love, Daisy (Carey Mulligan). The film’s co-writer and director, Baz Luhrmann, reveals the man behind the curtain too early to allow Gatsby to achieve the proper wonder.

“Gatsby” is actually Nick Carraway's (Tobey Maguire) story, something I always found unfortunate considering he's mostly a bland, judge-y spectator. The film unfolds as Nick, in a sanitarium due to his being, among other things, “morbidly alcoholic,” recalls the eventful summer of 1922 he spent hanging with his cousin Daisy, her cheating husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), and, eventually, his next-door neighbor Gatsby, who throws parties so lavish and exciting that, well, Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) wanted to bring them to life.

Neither DiCaprio (Luhrmann's “Romeo and Juliet”), an actor prone to serious material hinging on emotional explosion, nor Maguire (“Pleasantville”), Hollywood's resident wuss, is an inspired casting choice. I'd have picked Michael Fassbender to play Gatsby and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Nick. Even then, though, Luhrmann would be stifled by questionable motivations when scenes don't include dancing and drinking to anachronistic music from Jay-Z (who executive produced), Beyonce/Mrs. Jay-Z or Lana Del Rey. Those choices are fine--at least Luhrmann didn't acknowledge Gatsby's devotion to Daisy with Bryan Adams' “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”--since the foolishly 3-D “Gatsby” depicts a world in which unhappiness lives beneath glitz and prosperity. The filmmaker is justified in looking for a contemporary connection.

Yet in a different way than the also-unsuccessful 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, this remedial “Gatsby” fails to depict a tragic, star-crossed story of a great love torn away by timing and financial priorities. We never see what Daisy saw in Tom nor understand where she's at when forced between her past and current men. It's unclear why Nick so admires Gatsby's hopefulness when Nick barely emotes himself. Frequently Nick's superfluous narration (“Something told me it was Mr. Gatsby; he seemed to be reaching toward something out there in the dark”) tells us what we can clearly see.

Lacking much pep in its step, the film isn't so much style over substance (like the pathetic “Gangster Squad”) as an inability to access material rather than merely paste it to the screen. Occasionally “Gatsby” captures the power of unburdened love and the suffocating nature of hidden agendas among friends and lovers. Still, in an age when detached fame and manufactured personas have become so transparently phony, an unexpectedly lonely icon of wealth and success hardly registers as profound.

“Gatsby” asks if we can retrieve the past, but the film's own failings serve as the greatest proof to the contrary.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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