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Article updated: 5/10/2013 9:49 AM

Luhrmann celebrates style over substance in misconceived adaptation

By Dann Gire

Leonardo DiCaprio's grand entrance as the mysterious Mr. Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" ranks as one of Hollywood's great cinematic introductions, right up there with our first glimpse of Sean Connery as James Bond in "Dr. No."

During a boisterous party scene, the camera dramatically cuts to DiCaprio's face, glowing with charisma and projecting what must be the male equivalent to Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile.

He wears white suits as if they were celestial king's robes. He radiates confidence. Cool. Control.

His Gatsby rules as the master of F. Scott Fitzgerald's universe, America in 1922 when the buildings were higher, the parties were bigger, the morals were looser and the booze was cheaper.

As impressive as DiCaprio's contributions are (this guy would make a terrific Charles Foster Kane for any filmmaker brave enough to remake "Citizen Kane") Luhrmann's oddly faithful adaptation of Fitzgerald's great American novel celebrates style over substance.

Every shot in every scene photographed by Simon Duggan looks like one of those three-dimensional pop-up greeting cards at Hallmark -- provided you're seeing the 3-D version, of course.

And you must see this "Gatsby" in 3-D if at all, otherwise you will be stuck watching a movie with only twice as many dimensions as its characters.

Tobey Maguire brings slack-jawed amusement to his role as Fitzgerald's literate narrator Nick Carraway, a Midwestern kid who arrives in New York City to chase the American dream in a Long Island house across the bay from his cute cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).

His very nice digs are also next door to a palatial mansion owned by the mysterious, seldom-seen Mr. Gatsby, a combination Howard Hughes, Hugh Hefner and the aforementioned Charles Foster Kane.

Every weekend the place jumps with flappers and good-time Charlies partying hardy while the stock market soars, soars, soars and Maguire's constant voice-over narration bores, bores, bores.

Here's a case where faithfulness to a literary source doesn't work well in the movies.

The script (by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce) includes much of the literary text from Fitzgerald's 1925 publication, including Carraway's narration, used here as endless voice-over commentary that results in stupefying redundancies. (As the lights go off one by one in Gatsby's house, Carraway tells us, "The lights went out one by one.")

Carraway's knowledge and omniscience also prove to be conveniently inconsistent. If he can relate to us the most intimate of moments between Daisy and Gatsby, why can't he also tell us what Gatsby does with the mysterious men who pop in at his mansion and disappear into the shadows?

Granted, this is nit-picky stuff, yet Luhrmann might have taken inspiration from "The Hunger Games," which transposed a highly personal, first-person narrative into an extremely accomplished third-person movie experience.

As Carraway endlessly reports, Gatsby isn't everything people think he is. He carries an acetylene torch for Daisy, a former lover now married to Carraway's old college chum, the wealthy and obnoxious Tom Buchanan (played with brash superficiality by Tom Edgerton).

Tom himself has roving eyes. With those, he's been seeing trashy Myrtle (Isla Fisher), a floozy from the wrong side of town and married to a desperately poor mechanic (Jason Clark).

None of this Roaring Twenties sexual intrigue, speak-easy naughtiness, hedonistic abandon and romantic obsession makes much of an impact under Lurhmann's cold and soulless direction.

As good as the cast is -- Edgerton, Maguire and Mulligan infuse their characters with kinetic affection -- Luhrmann falls back on the pumped visuals and trendy soundtracks (here supplied by Jay Z and Beyoncé) that worked in his "Moulin Rouge" and "Romeo + Juliet."

So we get a flamboyantly superficial film that grants the same importance to slow-motion shots of a woman's car-struck body flying through the air (twice) as it does Fitzgerald's dissection of the death of the American dream.

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