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On Movies: Too many sparks, without ignition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Some years ago, a friend of mine moved to Maine. As winter approached, she went to the local hardware store to buy a snow shovel. The lifelong Mainer at the counter asked, "What do you want a snow shovel foah?"

"For snow?" she suggested.

"If you buy it," he replied, with a dour look, "you'll just have to use it."

I fantasize that something like that happened to director Baz Luhrmann when he approached the daunting task of directing, in 3-D, a new, movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great 1925 novel, "The Great Gatsby." The tragic yet satirical, meticulously written narrative would not seem particularly suited to the expensive retinal trick the movie studios call "3-D." But the producers of the movie (nine are listed) bought and paid for 3-D, and Luhrmann just had to use it -- and abuse it, repeatedly, until the mind reels from the dizzying and meaningless images attacking the screen.

The director who put the exclamation point in "Moulin Rouge!" and the plus sign in "Romeo + Juliet" loves visual artificiality, and what could be more visually artificial than a 3-D movie -- that's why the process seems to work best with fantasy or science-fiction. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is basically a romantic tragedy, although it contains one of the best stories every told about the lure and toxicity of the American Dream. Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie) is a poor boy who becomes an officer in the Great War, has a brief romance with a society girl named Daisy (Carey Mulligan), becomes a rich bootlegger during Prohibition and, still in love with Daisy, buys a mansion on Long Island the size of Windsor Castle. He's just across a bay from where Daisy now lives with her husband, the born-rich Tom Buchanan, in a mansion with a green light beckoning from the dock.

An arrogant rounder, Tom neglects Daisy while he pursues polo ponies and trashy woman. Across the bay where the nouveau riche live, Gatsby throws legendary parties every weekend, hoping that Daisy will notice.

She doesn't, but everybody else in the area with a fancy car does; and Gatsby's weekend gatherings as mounted by Luhrmann are not so much parties as enormous performances, with a cast of what seems to be thousands dancing and cavorting on vast marble floors and curving stairways and broad balconies.

Everything sparkles, by which I mean "gives off sparks." The multitudes are propelled into frenetic gyrations by a mixture of music -- early jazz, techno pop, rap and eventually Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which is at least period-appropriate. At times, the extravaganzas in Gatsby's immense mansion seem like mob scenes from a blockbuster Broadway musical. You just know that the opportunity to stage those parties -- and restage them, ad nauseum -- was one of the things that attracted Luhrmann to the story.

Sometimes the protagonists visit New York, where the rooms are blindingly overdecorated, people talk through their noses, and, from time to time, a black guy in an undershirt wanders by playing blue notes on the trumpet. I have no idea what this means.

Back on Long Island, next door to Gatsby's fabulous mansion and its opium-dream parties, Daisy's poor cousin Nick Carraway (Toby Maguire) lives in a small gardener's cottage. Nick narrates the story of Gatsby -- in the book, to us; in the movie, to a psychiatrist. (The device, invented for the movie, may offend purists, but it does give Nick an excuse to read out loud at length from one of the greatest of American novels, and Fitzgerald was no stranger to psychiatrists.)

The first half of the movie, before Gatsby and Daisy get together (thanks to Nick), is drowning in dramatic and visual and aural overkill. Nothing seems real and even the downbeat scenes are over-cooked -- the industrial wasteland the rich must pass through to get from Long Island to New York looks like the ninth circle of hell, and even something as matter-of-fact as the revelation that Gatsby’s parents were poor farmers is shrouded in excess -- the screen flashes quickly to a man and a woman, old as the hills and dressed in filthy denim rags, moving like zombies through a dusty landscape, with what is either their ramshackle cabin or a pigsty in the background.

I promised myself I wouldn't get lost in comparing the movie to the book, but I have to say that Luhrmann, particularly in the first half of the movie, wields a sledgehammer where Fitzgerald worked with the brush of a master portraitist and a skilled surgeon's scalpel.

Luhrmann's "Gatsby" is the fifth attempt to turn this great American novel into a movie, and it is no more successful than any of the others.

This overblown movie lasts 2 hours and 20 minutes. In the last hour or so, the focus narrows, and Gatsby and Daisy start their affair. Up to that point, the cast just seemed to be mouthing dialogue without conviction while Luhrmann attended to the visuals, but the last hour permits some believable human emotions to emerge from the maelstrom of razzmatazz.

The final scenes work pretty well, focusing on the characters and the narrative rather than on spectacle and visual noise, and Luhrmann is wise enough to leave the last minutes of the movie to Nick, in voiceover, reading the final lines of Fitzgerald's book, the famous lines comparing us all -- you, me, Gatsby, Nick -- to "boats against the current."  Unfortunately, most of the way through, Luhrmann seems to have been interested mainly in the current, not in the boats.

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