The dumb joke I keep making with friends is that they're going to crap themselves when Leo sings Sisqo's "Thong Song" in the middle of this movie.
Of course, the only problem with that dumb joke is that well over half of those friends think I'm serious. At least two of them howled, "Nooooooooooooooooo!" as their only response. A few others: "Does that really happen?"
"No," I said, "You see, that's why it's a joke, because of Baz Luhrmann's predilection for anachronistically throwing pop culture items into a Vitamix and spinning up a giant pastiche of empty sensation and... look, just forget it. He doesn't sing."
Part of me wishes DiCaprio had sung. That everyone in the movie had sung. That all remnants of serious literary adaptation had been discarded in favor of the remix. That singing, the surprise of watching Ewan McGregor pop open his entire face, bleating out "MY GIFT IS MY SONG!" or a frenzy of chorus girls and guys in tuxedos belting out "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was one of the secret weapons of Moulin Rouge. Exclamation point. You could have seen Ken Russell's Tommy and Lisztomania as well as Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet and still have been taken by surprise. It was a two hour swim in a lovingly constructed, frippery-mad Candyland of melodramatic heartbreak.
But Gatsby starts with a creative stumbling block: it's all been done before by Luhrmann himself and, later, cherry-picked by a lot of other people. Sofia Coppola using New Order and Chuck Taylors in Marie Antoinette. Madonna making Wallis Simpson dance to the Sex Pistols in W.E.. Here they do the Charleston to dubstep and house music in 3D during massive attacks of binge-fun filled with what appear to be Mylar streamers and at least one grinning extra running around with a Melchizedek-sized bottle of strenuously ejaculating champagne. Depending on your perspective, this sort of thing -- and it takes up the first hour or so -- is either the work of a more-is-more-is-more supergenius or the digital throw-up of a meth-addicted Froot Loops toucan aiming for your eyes.
I hate being bored so I'll vote for unrestrained Luhrmann over sober Luhrmann. At least while the film is all about wide-eyed bystander Nick's (Tobey Maguire) entry into the world of 1922's extravagant wealth, the film hops around ecstatically bumping and grinding and drinking and shouting, the frame packed with excessive amounts of kaleidoscopic detail. During those sequences it feels like Luhrmann's having a blast making exactly the film he wants to make, a screaming Match.com profile enticing you to come party with Down4WhatevrBaz.
But then F. Scott Fitzgerald's inherently quiet interior takes over. It's a story of murmured, unrequited striving, after all, as Gatsby (DiCaprio) builds a mountain of opulent wealth to impress married Daisy (Carey Mulligan, whispery and blank) in the hope of winning her love away from cruel, old-money Tom (Joel Edgerton). And that quiet story is told by uncertain, pining, "within and without" onlooker Nick, so when the serious heavy lurches in only the occasional desperate speakeasy jam (yes, Jay-Z makes sure to include a H.O.V.A. cameo in his score) can lift it out of its slow march to sadness.
Worse, unlike McGregor and Kidman, singing their endless love to one another via Bollywood-splosion death aria, there's very little crackle or spark to this romance, nothing to keep your attention focused on the emotions you're meant to infer from Gatsby's tragic
staring longing in the direction of Daisy's green light.
Maybe Gatsby is its own stumbling block. Maybe it's unfilmable or maybe Luhrmann should have blasted off in another direction, changed the ending like Demi Moore's insane version of The Scarlet Letter, sent his characters into space or deeper into the kind of digital fantasy backdrop 3D can provide. Something not like a book made into a movie, something more like an seductive absinthe unreality, ascending into the sky in Gatsby's yellow roadster. Whatever it took. Like singing. There should have been singing.