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Review: 'Gatsby' not great, just above average

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While the film likely won't make St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald roll over in his grave, there's something different enough in writer-director Baz Luhrmann's big-screen adaptation of the literally legend's "The Great Gatsby" to have fans of the time-honored novel -- and the classic Robert Redford-Mia Farrow adaptation -- rolling their eyes.

That's not the new "Gatsby" is a bad film, by any means, it just requires a certain taste. It mostly invokes a classical atmosphere, but at the same time, doesn't feel like a classic film.

There's no question that Luhrmann's a terrific filmmaker, from his auspicious debut with "Strictly Ballroom" to the raucous "Moulin Rouge," to his under-appreciated Hugh Jackman-Nicole Kidman epic "Australia." His interpretation of Shakespeare with "Romeo + Juliet" -- his first film with "Gatsby" star Leonardo DiCaprio -- also proved that he wasn't afraid to takes risks with classic material to make an artistic statement.

And my, my, Old Sport, does Luhrmann lay it all on the line trying to make an artistic statement here.

Filling the film with visual razzle dazzle, a fusion of classical and modern music, and the rare, proper use of 3-D, Luhrmann is clearly aiming to make "The Great Gatsby" his own, and to an extent, he does. The film will certainly please fans of his work -- but as for everybody else, it's a gamble. It depends how much you're willing to tolerating somebody toying with what's considered as one of the greatest novels of all time.

DiCaprio looms larger than life as the title character in "The Great Gatsby," which follows would-be writer Nick Carraway's (Tobey Maguire) story of how he left to Midwest for New York City, where he encounters a mysterious, millionaire neighbor Jay Gatsby. The Twenties are definitely roaring, especially at Gatsby's mansions where he throws huge soirees that anybody and everybody shows up to. They really don't seem to care who Gatsby is or how exactly he made his money, and the stories they've heard about the man are all across the board.

Befriending Gatsby, Nick discovers a past romance between his new neighbor and his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). After their romance fell by the wayside when Gatsby went off to war, she married blue-blood Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who's not so discreet about his extra-marital affairs. Thanks to Nick's help, Gatsby gets reacquainted with Daisy and the couple rekindles their love, creating a clash with destiny.

See my review on "KARE 11 News at 11" with Diana Pierce below.

Of course, there's no film out there that can stake claim to a perfect interpretation of a novel, much less a classic one, but as far as the basic framework of "The Great Gatsby" goes, Luhrmann sticks closely to the script (although he does tinker with the final act a bit for more dramatic effect).

There's no question, though, that film dramatically differs in its visual presentation in comparison to the Redford-Farrow version. When Gatsby parties, he parties to the hilt -- and Luhrmann pulls out all the stops for the celebration. Complimented by bold sets and the stunning styles of the era, you can't help but become enveloped in the spectacle of it all.

The biggest problem comes with some of the music. Call it an artistic risk or just plain pandering to a younger demographic, Luhrmann infuses rap music -- supervised by Jay-Z -- into some, but thankfully not all, scenes, which is jarring and feels horribly out of place. The story is, after all, set in the Jazz Age, so you can just about imagine how sharp the contrast is when the director melds in hip-hop stylings one minute and George & Ira Gershwin the next. Luhrmann would have been much better off just cutting the songs.

As inspiring as the film is visually, the best scenes, not surprisingly come when Luhrmann allows his talented stable of actors to do their thing in a quieter, more controlled atmosphere. The climactic confrontation between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom, for example, is incredibly intense, especially in the way it showcases the volatile edginess Edgerton brings to his character.

For a timeless story, it's only appropriate that Luhrmann cast DiCaprio and Maguire, because, quite honestly, they don't seem to age. But with their years of experience comes a certain gravitas and their years in front of the camera weighs heavy here. The fresh-faced Mulligan also commands your attention as Daisy, as does Australian newcomer Elizabeth Debicki in the pivotal supporting role of Jordan Baker.

In the minor supporting roles, Indian film legend Amitabh Bachchan brings a creepy presence to shady Meyer Wolfshiem, while Jason Clarke and Isla Fisher also stand out as the doomed couple George and Myrtle Fisher. Even though their roles are smaller, their presence is substantial enough to make you long for more of their talent, rather than all of the window dressing that's featured around them.

If anything, the actors serve as a constant reminder of what could have been: "The Great Gatsby" could have been great, but in the end, it's just ... "The Above Average Gatsby."

"The Great Gatsby," rated PG-13, 2 1/2 stars out of four.

See the trailer for "The Great Gatsby" below.

What other local critics are saying …

Chris Hewitt in his 2 star Pioneer Press review that the film" isn't very good but it sure is purty."

Colin Covert of the Star Tribune also gives the film 2 stars, saying while Luhrmann has an eye for spectacle, he is "deaf to emotional detail" and has "turned an exquisitely told story of doomed romance into a 3-D production with all the depth of a pop-up book."

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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