A dizzying display of excess
Maybe this is my problem and I need to work things out in therapy, but I couldn't stop thinking of Pee-wee Herman while watching Baz Luhrmann's misguided and grandiose adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
There I was, in the dark with 3-D glasses on, and every time Tobey Maguire appeared - boyish and bug-eyed, and often bow-tied, too, as Nick Carraway, the optimistic observer of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Roaring Twenties tragedy - Paul Reubens' kiddie-show character sprang to mind.
Luhrmann would have been better served with Pee-wee as his Yale grad and World War I vet, ensconced in a carriage house on the grounds of Jay Gatsby's lavish Long Island estate. Pee-wee certainly would have brought more heft to the role than Maguire does, and that trademark titter would have mixed nicely into the cacophonous party scenes, when the flappers start flapping and the confetti pours down over the swimming pool. (And Beyoncé and Lana Del Rey get all moody and techno on the Jay-Z-produced soundtrack.)
Pee-wee could have invited Cowboy Curtis over to pop some champagne, too. Why not?
Luhrmann, the Australian auteur of Moulin Rouge! fame, wouldn't know the meaning of the aphorism "less is more" if somebody beat him over the head with it. And somebody should.
Yes, The Great Gatsby is a novel about wealth and excess, the empty lives of the rich and glamorous, and so the fixtures and fittings of the rich and glamorous must be examined: the loose, low-cut, lovely dresses, the bespoke suits, the boaters (and the boats!), the roadsters and coupés, the mansions and hotel suites.
And all of this Luhrmann and his crew have captured with obsessive detail.
But Fitzgerald's 1922 classic evoked this shimmering sphere with language that was clean and precise, beautifully turned but not conspicuously beautiful. Many of Fitzgerald's lines make it into Luhrmann's screenplay, and into Maguire's mouth - and, in a distracting show of 3-D gimmickry, onto the screen itself: letters and words that bob and weave in superimposed mode, as Carraway's old Remington taps out his climactic account of Gatsby and the disaster that unfolds.
(The movie's narrative-flashback device - Nick Carraway writing his account while lodged in an asylum, suffering from a nervous disorder, or depression - is pretty lame. The story is his therapy, the audience his analyst!)
Gatsby, in case you haven't heard, is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor whose earnestness can be measured by the furrows on his brow. He is a solitary swell, a millionaire whose millions remain a mystery - how did he come by his money? The world wants to know.
Gatsby is driven to distraction by Carraway's fair cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives across the bay with her Old Money husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Gatsby courted her, before she wed. He assigns Carraway the task of inviting Daisy over for tea. Gatsby will make an appearance, and, by his reckoning, steal her away from the lug she can't possibly love.
There have been other stabs at Fitzgerald's book: a lost silent production, with Warner Baxter as Gatsby, a few years after the novel was published; Alan Ladd as Gatsby, in a 1949 version; and Robert Redford as Gatsby in the Francis Ford Coppola-scripted 1974 production, a handsome but bland affair.
But none can be deemed as audaciously miscalculated as this. There are so many things wrong with Luhrmann's Great Gatsby - the filmmaker's attention-deficit-disorder approach, the anachronistic convergence of hip-hop and swing, the choppy elision of Fitzgerald's plot, the jarring collision of Jazz Age cool and Millennial cluelessness. But at the crux of things, the problem is that it's impossible to care: Mulligan makes for a breathy muse (at times, she seems to be doing Marilyn Monroe), and she is sad-eyed and stylishly sylphlike. But her Daisy is skin-deep. And Maguire's performance is callow and shallow.
DiCaprio's Gatsby is an empty man, and while it's a challenge to convey the spiritual void without merely appearing vacant, DiCaprio isn't up to the task. (Mad Men's Don Draper is another figure on the 20th century American landscape who has remade himself, reimagined himself, and who remains haunted by his past. But Jon Hamm pulls this off.)
This Jay Gatsby is just a man with some very fine suits and a cross-eyed look of doom. To borrow a line from Fitzgerald's book (from an indignant Tom Buchanan), he truly is Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.
The Great Gatsby ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Baz Luhrmann. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton and Isla Fisher. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 2 hours, 23 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, profanity, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters