You don’t expect to leave a Baz Luhrmann movie wishing he’d been more daring.
It’s the cinematic equivalent of wanting to hand Liberace a BeDazzler.
But after some exhilarating, genre-melting moments in the “Moulin Rouge” director’s wildly anachronistic take on “The Great Gatsby,” things settle down and more closely resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of love and loss amid the opulence of the roaring ’20s.
The problem is, the purist-infuriating mashup Luhrmann creates in the early going is like crack coated in cane sugar and Red Bull. Once you get a taste, you need to maintain that high.
Unfortunately, it proves unsustainable.
Storywise, this “Gatsby” is the same one you (might) remember from high school. (Is “Gatsby” even still required reading? If not, kids, it’s basically a Prohibition-era “Gossip Girl.”)
In 1922, writer/bonds trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in Long Island’s new-moneyed West Egg community to see his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), who live across the bay in old-moneyed East Egg.
Almost immediately, Nick finds himself distracted by “the riotous amusements that beckoned.”
Parties burst to life, seemingly out of nowhere, in an ostentatious frenzy — none bigger than those thrown by Nick’s neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s more myth than man.
Shot in stunning 3-D, “Gatsby” is one of the most visually sumptuous movies you could ever hope to see. The ethereal cityscapes add to its dreamlike nature. Even the rain is beautiful.
As Tom, Edgerton comes across as an Old Hollywood icon.
At least until DiCaprio, radiantly reunited with his “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” director, makes his grand entrance.
I don’t want to say DiCaprio makes love to the camera, but he at least gets to second base with it.
After that, Tom more closely resembles Conan O’Brien in “The Clark Gable Story.” (No, really. It’s uncanny.)
Most of New York attends Gatsby’s bashes — all of them but Nick uninvited — with their overloaded jalopies threatening to spill their passengers like breadcrumbs on their way to the “kaleidoscopic carnival” that awaits.
The sensory-overloading bacchanals are “Gatsby’s” hallmark, even if they curiously celebrate the very decadence Fitzgerald decried.
His novel is adapted by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, but the film’s biggest footprint, at least in its early stages, belongs to Jay-Z.
The rap mogul served as an executive producer, shaping the soundtrack with an assist from the Brian Setzer Orchestra, blending hip-hop beats with century-old compositions. “Gatsby” is guaranteed to be the only place you’ll hear Q-Tip alongside George Gershwin.
One of the trippiest images that sets the stage for what’s to come involves Gatsby and Nick, whom the millionaire playboy has taken under his wing. As they speed into New York, Nick catches a glimpse of a convertible nearly bursting with bottles of Moet and passengers dancing to the sounds of Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).”
It’s surreal. It’s transportative. And it lasts maybe five seconds.
But it’s the coolest five seconds I’ve seen so far this year.
Eventually the party has to stop. And it does so accompanied by the newspaper headline “Party Palace Goes Dark,” one of several references to Gatsby’s tabloid existence, once he reconnects with his old flame, Daisy.
From that point on, “Gatsby” is at its most old-fashioned. It morphs into the sort of drama where the most intimate details can be conveyed in a glance, where men are forever sweeping back their forelocks, and where you can deeply wound someone by referring to him, as Gatsby does to Tom, as “the polo player.”
Throughout, Maguire struggles to hold the action as his passive, problematic Nick narrates from the safety of a sanitarium.
And the scenes with Tom’s mistress, Myrtle (Isla Fisher), and her mechanic husband, George (Jason Clarke) — under the watchful eyeglasses of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s billboard in the Valley of Ashes — don’t feel as connected as they should to the rest of the story.
But, more so than in the novel, this is Gatsby’s show, whether he’s big pimpin’ in a pink, three-piece suit or being reduced to a fidgety bundle of schoolboy nerves at the thought of seeing Daisy.
Their’s is a — spoiler alert! — “Titanic”-style doomed romance that can’t be overcome, even by Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope.”
If you paid attention at all in English Lit class, you know what’s coming.
Still, it’s a shame the music has to stop.
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Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com