Movie review: Baz Luhrmann turns Gatsby into an enjoyable live-action cartoon

By Columbus Alive
From the May 9, 2013 edition

You don’t go into a Baz Luhrmann adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” expecting subtlety. Baz is an auteur of style-over-substance. And you get what you expect here.

The “Moulin Rouge” director is going to get his share of haters for turning F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel into a cinematic mouthful of Pop Rocks, but don’t count me among them. I hated his “Gatsby” for a while, but then I’ll be damned if I didn’t start to love it a little, too.

His typically candy-colored world of a booming 1920s New York City is as vibrant as it is artificial. He creates a 3-D live action cartoon — right down to the fact that some of his actors feel drawn into the scenes.

Our humble narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire being Tobey Maguire) recounts the tale of his fascinating and uber-wealthy neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a tale that encompasses love and deceit and the “American Dream” itself.

Luhrmann is most in his element when he’s tearing through the budget with opulence worthy of one of Jay Gatsby’s killer parties. Those huge party scenes in particular bring out the ADD with pure sensory overload and a swirling sea of over-energized extras. The screen practically ejaculates glitter.

He makes the Roaring Twenties roar harder with help from a Jay-Z-produced soundtrack. It’s jarringly out of place with the period, but that’s what makes it fun, right?

He’s less of an actor’s director, though, and performances are mixed throughout. DiCaprio chews into Gatsby as expected, although he’s always being Leo on screen too. I preferred his over-enunciation in “Django Unchained.” Carey Mulligan, playing Daisy Buchanan, is uncharacteristically flat. The director wrings more chemistry from his visual lushness than his actors’ performances.

Baz also uses Fitzgerald’s prose as literal and figurative set decoration. That the author’s words are often reduced to punctuation marks for Lurhmann’s visual touches will make literature hounds bristle, but what are you gonna do?

In the early going, “Gatsby” is a showy, occasionally grating carnival ride — it even called to mind “The Phantom Menace” to me at times. And then the utter ridiculousness of Luhrmann’s approach started to win me over just as the melodrama of the tale picks up.

There’s a reason this movie was moved from late-year Oscar season to summer. It’s a popcorn movie, not a literary one.