Not quite the cinematic train wreck the trailer suggests, “The Great Gatsby” does have its moments.
The Baz Luhrmann-directed adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is quite noisy and overbearing at times, yet nearly works, thanks to a strong second half and some really good work from Leonardo DiCaprio.
It’s close, but ultimately “The Great Gatsby” is the cinematic version of the Great American Novel for Dummies.
Set in the 1920s, “Gatsby” tells the story of a wide-eyed Midwestern boy named Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who arrives in New York eager to make a name for himself.
He is befriended by his mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), who lures Nick into his lavish world of nightly parties and excess.
As the friendship strengthens, Nick begins to learn more about Gatsby – including his previous romance with Nick’s now married cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan).
I’ve never been a fan of Luhrmann, the man behind “Moulin Rouge” and the modern day retelling of “Romeo + Juliet,” so my expectations were pretty low going into “Gatsby.”
For the first half, those fears were realized with Luhrmann’s over-the-top visual style and crazy soundtrack, mixing Jay-Z with Gershwin. I found it to be all style and glitz and very little substance.
When “Gatsby” shifts to the romance, and DiCaprio takes center stage, the movie takes a huge step in the right direction. Luhrmann’s style is dialed down and DiCaprio’s strong performance carries the second half. DiCaprio is the perfect mix of confidence and vulnerability.
He’s so good, he overshadows the rest of the cast. Maguire is never quite believable as Nick, while Mulligan is fine – though not that memorable – as Daisy.
Even with a so-so supporting cast, DiCaprio almost makes you forget how dated and trivial the conflicts and themes in “Gatsby” really are.
I realize the novel is beloved as an American classic, but the story feels really archaic, and the film only emphasizes how dated the material is.
This is probably the best version of “Gatsby” one can imagine, and may be the best we will ever see of Luhrmann, but it still isn’t good enough to be considered required viewing.
DVD dandy of the week
This week’s dandy is “Side Effects” (B), the latest from director Steven Soderbergh, which was overlooked when it was released in February.
This is a fun little thriller that probably shouldn’t be thought about too much after the fact.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a young wife battling depression. It’s something she has battled all her life, but the problems increased after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was arrested for insider trading, leading to four years in prison.
Emily is prescribed a drug by her new psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), which appears to be working. But the drug has a side effect that leads to an alarming incident.
The trailer for “Side Effects” is misleading – the film more of a conventional thriller than even the ads suggest.
This is a movie best seen with as little knowledge as possible, making the surprises (even the predictable ones) that much more entertaining.
The cast is very good, especially Mara, who is capable of doing more with a look than many actors can do with lengthy monologues.
“Side Effects” probably has one or two twists too many and if you think about it much afterward, you will probably realize how preposterous it all really is.
But in the moment, the film is a lot of fun.
Soderbergh and the cast make the most out of the material, making it easy to ignore how silly the final act really is.
“Side Effects” is rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language and will be available Tuesday on DVD.