Life is a cabaret, old sport, or maybe halftime at the Super Bowl in Baz Luhrmann’s overhyped and overheated 3-D adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” — the fifth time Hollywood has taken on the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel that many consider the greatest novel in the American language.
Luhrmann eschews the exclamation point that punctuated the title of his last musical extravaganza, “Moulin Rouge!” and soberly frames Fitzgerald’s tale of lost love, megalomaniacal longing, and mad excess as Nick Carraway’s report from a sanitarium, a strategy that not only positions the movie as heir to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” but enables the director to quote large chunks of the novel, either through Toby Maguire’s doleful voiceover or, occasionally, spelled out literally on the screen.
Still, subtitles notwithstanding, there’s scarcely a moment of down time. Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” bursts with inane vitality; the scenario is scored for rickety roller coaster and wacky slide trombone. Flaunting his trademark ballistic swoop or free-fall camera plunge at every opportunity, Luhrmann avails himself of digital magic to stage drag races across the Queensboro Bridge (feeling groovy?) and fill the screen with anachronistic Busby Berkeley cum Club 54 hip-hoppity Charleston displays.
The effect of these elaborate musical numbers is not unlike the “The Ethel Merman Disco Album,” which, in its bombastic conflation of the archaic and the trendy, would not be out of place in Luhrmann’s vision of New York as Jazz Age Disneyland. A Josephine Baker clone cavorts center stage at every party and there’s a miniature Cotton Club on every block. Even a trippy mid-afternoon bootleg gin and flapper orgy is serenaded by a frantic black trumpeter on a neighboring fire escape. Gatsby’s mansion seems modeled on Cinderella’s Castle. How can Daisy (played with calculated banality by Carey Mulligan) ever hope to compete?
Rather than trash Fitzgerald, Luhrmann is bizarrely reverent — treating “Gatsby” as though it were the Epic of Gilgamesh. Indeed, he bludgeons Fitzgerald’s hardly subtle symbols (the green light on Daisy’s dock, the giant eyes of central Queens) so relentlessly he might be starting a new religion. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is introduced with a blast of “Rhapsody in Blue” and is regularly framed against the cosmos. DiCaprio himself seems to be channeling Robert Redford, who played the role in the disastrous 1974 version of the movie — although he brings a welcome sense of irony to the part. This vaguely comic performance enables DiCaprio to complete the American Dreamer triptych he initiated with turns as Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover.
There’s also 3-D, with enough high angles to keep the process interesting, even when Luhrmann isn’t showering the audience with fusillades of glitter and confetti. Credit where due: Luhrmann does adequately handle the big third-act hotel room confrontation involving Gatsby and Tom (Joel Edgerton). But, as if embarrassed by letting his actors act, he immediately blows the movie’s human dimension sky high in the car crash that follows. Not only shown in slow motion, the catastrophe is needlessly reprised.
Does Baz Luhrmann dream of making Ken Russell seem as restrained as Robert Bresson? (Do androids dream of electric sheep?) Subtlety is not a concept but giddy as it is, “The Great Gatsby” lacks the lunatic excess of “Moulin Rouge!” There’s nothing here to compare with the latter’s absinthe vision of Tinkerbell or Jim Broadbent’s prancing version of “Like a Virgin.” Searching for real depth, Luhrmann ends the movie by demurely quoting “Sunset Boulevard.” This “Gatsby” is beyond vulgar but, unfortunately, not far enough.