When the Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby opened Friday, the movie didn't simply appear on the cineplex screens - it exploded through the theater walls like the Kool-Aid mascot - that giant, destructive glass pitcher lummox with a smile permanently affixed to its icy face.
Luhrmann's take on the novel is filmed in Annoy-a-Vision, an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach where the filmmaker ladles excess on glitz on clutter on razzmatazz, covers the whole thing in jimmies and glitter and then uses his camera to whoosh from here to there because God forbid anyone has to wait even a whole instant for their visual gratification.
The story is set in the 1920s but the music is contemporary - all the better to draw in the CW audience, my dear. Three defenses for the decision: One, the sounds may be different, but the tone matches the times. Two, in a film so packed with artificiality, what difference does it make? Three, orchestras weren't common during the days of gladiator flicks, but we didn't get fussy about that. So there you go.
On the off chance the visual and aural assault isn't enough to make smoke come out of your ears, the film is also available in 3D. If you're a fan of the process, let me assure you it is not used well enough to justify paying the extra fee. Because everything, including the backgrounds, looks so phony, shots of the actors look like they were blown up from View-Master reels. Now I have fond memories of View-Master discs (did you know they once had Star Trek episodes on View-Master?), but a whole movie filmed that way is not a treat.
So what about the story and the people? Luhrmann's take on Fitzgerald's classic book is surprisingly faithful. In the film's bookends, we even see lines from the book onscreen - floating in View-Master 3D, natch, the way Fitzgerald would have wanted.
The plot (for those of you who managed to dodge the book in high school): Nick (Tobey Maguire) moves from Minnesota to New York in 1922 to learn about bonds. He rents a place on Long Island next door to a mysterious figure named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy Yale-educated recluse who throws lavish parties he usually doesn't attend. While visiting his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), who live across the lake, Nick meets Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki), a cynical friend of theirs. Nick gets invited to one of Gatsby's parties where he meets the legend and learns that Gatsby had a relationship with Daisy years earlier and desperately wants to win her back. Complications ensue.
I've talked with people that were greatly affected by the plights of the characters in this iteration of The Great Gatsby. I felt no emotional connection with the players, not for a second. Most of the time they didn't even seem to be interacting with each other - rather, they appeared to be reciting lines while posed oh-so-carefully like paper dolls in Luhrman's elaborate dioramas.
Leonardo DiCaprio does what he can with the title role. Early on, he exudes a Citizen Kane vibe despite a shaky accent and the frequent and thoroughly unconvincing use of the phrase "old sport." His persona grows more ragged as the story progresses, which is appropriate. Tobey Maguire, thankfully, only exhibits his infuriating smirk once or twice. Alas, the rest of the time he is simply there, a flat outsider. Again, neither actor should be judged too harshly. How hard it must have been to establish depth of character in Baz Luhrmann's wading pool of an adaptation.