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May 10, 2013

REVIEW: 'The Great Gatsby': Director Can't Find Lost Generation

"It's like an amusement park."

That's Nick Carraway, the wide-eyed, ever-present narrator of "The Great Gatsby," describing one of the legendary parties thrown by the movie's fabulously wealthy and elusive title character.

But Carraway could just as easily be referring to the very movie he finds himself in, a hyper-real, hyper-active, hyperbolic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel that spares no flower, flapper or fringe in bringing Jazz Age decadence to throbbing life. It takes a singular brand of chutzpah to consider perhaps the greatest piece of American literature of the 20th century and say, "What this story needs is 3-D." Australian director Baz Luhrmann is just that audacious, staging Fitzgerald's tale of reinvention and self-deception as a 21st century visual spectacle and multiculti musical mash-up of Jay-Z, George Gershwin and just about everything in between.

For all of Luhrmann's swagger, though, the net effect is akin to seeing "The Great Gatsby" miniaturized, its characters carefully choreographed against storybook illustrations of overworked perfection. It's glib to suggest that Luhrmann has made a "Great Gatsby" for idiots; it's more like he's made it for infants, who prefer their nourishment pre-masticated and their stories pictorialized by way of bright, arresting images (baubles you can try to grab are always nice, and help develop fine motor skills).

By no means is "The Great Gatsby" a disaster: Even at its most shallow, the film rescues Jay Gatsby as a largely sympathetic, romantic figure rather than a cynically ironic one. But neither is it necessary. Childlike, fetishistic and painfully literal, Luhrmann's experiment proves once again that it's Fitzgerald's writing — not his plot, his characters or his grasp of material detail — that has always made "Gatsby" great.

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