Sorry, Old Sport: Glossy, disappointing "Gatsby" dazzles eyes but leaves heart cold and wanting

The Great Gatsby (2013)
143 min., rated PG-13.

F. Scott Fitzgerald probably had no idea his 1925 "Great American Novel" would receive three more film adaptations after 1926's silent iteration. If any director could bring Gatsby's rich, decadent, and grandiose lifestyle to the screen, it would be Baz Luhrmann. Evidently drawn to tragic love stories, Luhrmann brought vibrant, dizzyingly audacious visions to 1996's "Romeo + Juliet" and 2001's "Moulin Rouge!" For all their hyperkinetic energy, visual pizzazz, and boldly anachronistic music choices, the stories themselves still felt tragic and deeply romantic. One would be ready to call "The Great Gatsby" an exhilarating, rhapsodic gush, but in effect, our chaperone renders the glitz and gloss all too literally, regrettably making the film ring hollow and artificial, and thus, leaving our hearts untouched. It's very much razzle-dazzle over substance, and that's disappointing.

Told through a flashback framing device, Luhrmann & Craig Pearce's screenplay uses penniless, disillusioned writer/bondsman Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as our fly-on-the-wall narrator and conduit through the summer of 1922 in New York. In a sanitarium, he tells a doctor who's treating Nick for "morbid alcoholism" about the time he moved into a little cottage on the coast of Long Island's West Egg. During that time, Nick visits his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who's married to old-money athlete Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Nick's Yale chum. They live directly across the bay in East Egg from Nick, who comes to realize he's living next door to the elusive Jay Gatsby (Leonard DiCaprio). Gatsby holds lavish, champagne-flowing parties at his mansion and opens the doors for anyone; Nick only observes them, until he receives a formal invitation. Rumors circle the true identity (is he a war hero, a criminal, a bootlegger, etc.?) of their generous, self-made 32-year-old host, who rarely shows himself to his guests. That one night, Gatsby shows his face and befriends Nick, asking to reunite him with Daisy, whom he's been in love with all this time after they met five years earlier. As it turns out, everything has been for Daisy all along. Then the party is over when Tom finds out, but you already know Gatsby cannot repeat the past if you did your English homework.

From frame one, "The Great Gatsby" is a shoot-the-works Luhrmann production through and through with his excitingly fresh, contemporary stamp of the Roaring Twenties on full display (and in worthless 3D). The film beats on, with frenetic cutting and so many CG'd crane shots, the camera swooping over New York, down and around high-rise buildings, and across the water, often towards that blinking green light on the dock. It certainly looks the part, being tarted up as a gaudy, overblown spectacle that captures the drinking, dancing, and confetti of Gatsby's rip-roaring bashes and speakeasies, which are fun and breathtaking to experience for a while. And, while literary purists might sneer at Luhrmann's bohemian, out-of-period use of mixing and matching music genres, the jazzy hip-hop soundtrack, combining the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey, oddly works. 

In terms of plot, this grand cinematic adaptation is faithful, with Fitzgerald's prose spoken and even thrown onto the screen like written text on parchment, but the intimate, passionate relationship between Gatsby and Daisy should be the spine. Here, on the screen, it just feels like a weightless wisp and the quixotic tone of romantic longing barely registers. Luhrmann enhances the excess and artificiality of fame and fortune so much that the heart and soul of the tragic love story at its core get swallowed up in his gauzy, lustrous style. Is this supposed to feel like something out of the fantastical Wonderland or the Land of Oz, or is it a story we should believe in and care about? One is never quite sure because the filmmaker tries to accomplish both. With that said, this is not your high school teacher's version: you'll be too distracted marveling at the eye-popping window dressing to really get wrapped up in the narrative and have your heart broken in the process.

Well-coiffed in period wardrobe (by Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's wife), the cast tries very hard but cannot be faulted for playing characters who are complex question marks to begin with. More of a lead than the title character, a wide-eyed Maguire does yeoman's work as passive observer Nick. DiCaprio is a great Gatsby, his interpretation coming the closest to finding the essence of a tortured enigma who is charming but has insecurities and a boiling rage inside, which, in one literally sweltering confrontation with Tom, effectively escalates and explodes into melodrama. (His consistent utterance of "old sport" could influence an ill-advised drinking game that will induce alcohol poisoning). Mulligan, who can do no wrong as an actress, is lovely on the outside as the unattainable Daisy and does the character justice, coming across as a blank, simpering vessel who's too weak to exchange one opulent life for another. Edgerton, often sounding like Antonio Banderas and sporting a mustache too thin to twirl, is suitably brutish as the self-involved Tom, who's too preoccupied with his philandering (one of his mistresses includes a mechanic's flighty wife Myrtle Wilson, played by a barely-there, lip-puckered Isla Fisher) to notice Daisy being in love with Gatsby. The film has one discovery in the form of lanky, striking newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, instantly catching one's eye as Daisy's close friend, golf pro Jordan Baker. She has the most verve and screen presence out of anyone.

After all is said and done, "The Great Gatsby" wants to have its cake and eat it too. It hasn't a dull moment on that marvelously shiny surface, but underneath, it lacks palpable feeling and power like it should. Let's just file Fitzgerald's classic novel under "unfilmable" (exception: the comparatively subdued but more emotionally sound 1974 Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version) and call it quits, unless an old sport like you just desires glittery sensory overload.

Grade: C +