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Gatsby on Blast 

Baz Luhrmann's frantic adaptation is all sparkle, no heart

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DiCaprio as Gatsby

Reviews

THE GREAT GATSBY. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby is a near-perfect novel, one of the indispensable works of 20th century American art. This movie from Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), on the other hand, seems like it was adapted from a ninth-grader's term paper on the book.

Fitzgerald captured a distinct place in time, rendering 1920s New York in all its seedy, rising glory. But he also told a story founded on timeless themes: appearance versus reality; wealth as a dividing line; misplaced love. The book is a compact marvel of deceptively complex structure, gorgeous language and insightful, nuanced characterizations — most of which Luhrmann forgoes in favor of cartoonish depictions of Jazz Age hijinks.

Narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Gatsby tells the story of a mysterious, vastly wealthy playboy. That's Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has recently moved to Long Island's "West Egg" and who hosts wildly excessive parties while keeping his true identity hidden. He and Carraway become friends and enter the sphere of the old money, "East Egg" Buchanans. Turns out Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) were romantically involved in the past, and he's spent the intervening years accumulating wealth and angling to win her back.

For some reason, the movie employs a hackneyed framing device that finds Carraway in treatment for alcoholism and depression. His doctor urges him to journal about his feelings, and the story takes shape within those pages. Not only is this an overused storytelling method, but it cheapens the novel's meticulous construction by mere association.

Luhrmann's visual style is vibrant, unique and often quite effective. Much of the first half of Gatsby throbs and sparkles with a likeable, refreshing intensity. Sadly, most of those scenes appeared in the trailer, which has been playing before every other movie for the last nine months or so. (Gatsby was originally slated to be released in December, among the prestige pictures. Cooler heads prevailed.) Luhrmann creates a distinctive vision of early 20th century New York, but setting plays a background role in the novel, whose heart lies in the internal dramas of its damaged characters. Luhrmann's handling of those struggles stops his movie's momentum almost completely.

After the orgiastic excess of the early party scenes, the movie lurches into storytelling mode. The pacing goes into slow-motion, the camera moves in for close-ups, and all the air goes out of the room. Lurhmann dutifully recreates the novel's more obvious visual cues — the green light at the end of the Buchanans' dock, the oculist's sign overlooking the ash piles — but he doesn't do anything with them.

That's the ninth-grade-term-paper aspect. Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce seem so intent on establishing a visual style, an imagined version of New York, that their reading of the novel doesn't go beyond the major plot points and easiest symbolism.

It wouldn't be a Baz Luhrmann movie if something about it wasn't annoyingly over-the-top. But when called upon to unpack the important thematic material, the movie stalls and never recovers. Especially compared to the bacchanal in the first act, the second hour barely moves. By the time it reaches the ending (so devastating on the page) it is hard to retain any investment in the characters or their struggles. Despite strong performances by a talented cast (especially Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan) the whole thing just fades out like an uninspired soap opera, with Fitzgerald's beautiful closing lines inelegantly overlaid on screen. PG13. 142m.

— John J. Bennett

Previews

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Four years ago (wow, really?) hotshot writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams breathed new life into this weary franchise by using an "alternate-universe" twist to (mind-) meld new storylines and actors with our favorite characters — Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al. In 2015 Abrams will take the helm of Star Wars: Episode VII, but this week he's back to explore strange new worlds in Gene Roddenberry's universe. PG13. 132m.

Friday at the Arcata Theatre Lounge, a sulky teenager in a hoodie gets trapped in a bizarre time loop with a prophetic man-bunny named Frank. That's right, cult fave Donnie Darko (2001) plays at 8 p.m. R. 113m. On Sunday, enjoy one of the best Pixar movies (and that's sayin' something): Ratatouille (2007) tells the story of Remy the Rat (voiced by the great Patton Oswalt), a culinary genius/rodent who partners with a young French chef to create gastronomical greatness. G. 111m.

Continuing

42. This Hollywood biopic about baseball color-barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson is so glossy it all but glosses over the issue of racism. PG13. 128m.

THE BIG WEDDING. Let's hope no wedding is ever as bad as this formulaic, low-brow comedy. Shame on these famous people. Shame. R. 89m.

THE CROODS. A prehistoric family must look for a new cave in this likeable animated comedy featuring the voices of Nic Cage and Emma Stone. PG. 96m.

EVIL DEAD. This gory remake of the 1980s camp-horror classic about a group of young'uns, a cabin in the woods and a skin-bound book has less camp, more viscera. R. 91m.

HOME RUN. An alcoholic baseball player finds redemption in a 12-step program because this is a religious right movie. PG13. 113m.

IRON MAN 3. Billionaire playboy/superhero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) must battle panic attacks and terrorist/stereotype The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). PG13. 130m.

OBLIVION. Tom Cruise! Sci-fi! Mediocre! Kinda pretty, though. PG13. 126m.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. Gerard Butler protects the president from evil Koreans. Yawn. R. 100m.

PAIN & GAIN. Hollywood schlock-maestro Michael Bay directs this explosive take on hostage-taking Miami muscle-heads (Mark Wahlberg, Duane Johnson). R. 129m.

— Ryan Burns

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John J. Bennett

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