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‘Gatsby’ Mashes DiCaprio, Deco, Hip-Hop; Serena: Review

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby in
Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio as Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby in "The Great Gatsby." The film is playing across the U.S. Photographer: Daniel Smith/Warner Bros. Pictures via Bloomberg

May 9 (Bloomberg) -- Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is a gaudy, Ritz-sized rhinestone of a movie, more flashy than dazzling, beguiling from some angles and phony to its core.

Smitten with the very excess that the novel takes down, “Gatsby” stuffs its Long Island mansions and Jazz Age speakeasies with all the candy-colored tricks in Luhrmann’s stylistic grab bag.

Rollercoaster CGI effects that mimic sweeping cinematography, party scenes executed at breakneck speed and the anachronistic thump of hip-hop music pump F. Scott Fitzgerald’s gin-fueled classic with cocaine energy.

With the exception of a silly framing device -- a rehabbing Nick Carraway is writing his tale at a sanitarium -- Luhrmann’s script, co-written with Craig Pearce, keeps the plot close to the book.

Carraway (Tobey Maguire, taking wide-eyed literally) has rented a summer bungalow in “West Egg,” next door to the It Crowd’s party-central: the mansion of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a striver of wealth, taste and mysterious background.

You know the rest: Gatsby longs for Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who’s married to self-entitled Tom (Joel Edgerton), who’s cheating with low-rent Myrtle (Isla Fisher), whose grease-monkey husband George (Jason Clarke) comes calling with a gun to bloody Gatsby’s rarely-used pool.

The novel’s appeal to Luhrmann almost surely begins and ends with the visual possibilities of an Art Deco fever dream overflowing with flappers, pastel suits and boozed-up A-listers and pretenders dancing the Charleston.

Marvelous Vision

At its best (less frequent here than in “Moulin Rouge”), Luhrmann’s vision is a marvel to behold.

“Gatsby” kicks into high gear with the party that introduces DiCaprio, as a line of coupes swoop from Manhattan to Gatsby’s beachside mansion in a terrific display of computer-designed tomfoolery.

With Emeli Sande’s dance-club version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” rocking the house and fireworks lighting the sky, the party takes “Gatsby” to an intoxicating, if exhausting, early high.

Even the 3-D gimmickry wears itself out, sometimes looking like an elaborate, gorgeous pop-up book and other times leaving the actors stranded in a foreground with the movie playing behind them.

Mustachioed Villain

The actors, though, are as indefatigable as the Jay-Z-produced soundtrack. They never for a moment rein in the broad, hyper-stylized performances. If Edgerton’s mustache was a bit longer, his villainous Tom Buchanan could, and no doubt would, twirl it.

Maguire, less the sharp-eyed observer than a besotted doofus, was a gamble that doesn’t pay off. Better is Mulligan’s Daisy, wispy as sea breeze if not as bracing.

Which leaves DiCaprio, who certainly looks the part. Tan and well-tailored, he mixes his “Titanic” boyishness with his “Django Unchained” temper.

Handed more repetitions of “old sport” than would seem likely (and annoyingly spoken, in an ill-defined accent, as “ol’ spoor”), DiCaprio hams it up. His Gatsby is hardly Fitzgerald’s man of mystery -- the actor telegraphs every emotion -- but who could blame him?

How else to compete with the fireworks?

“The Great Gatsby,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘Venus, Serena’

With remarkable access to its straight-talking subjects, “Venus and Serena” presents an indelible portrait of tennis’ compelling Williams sisters.

Directed by Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, the documentary follows the siblings during the particularly difficult 2011 season. Aging just past their peaks and struggling with health problems, the Williams open up about their fears, their goals and the lingering grief over the 2003 murder of their sister Yetunde Price.

Just as fascinating is father Richard Williams, the cantankerous force behind the girls’ single-minded drive.

Devoted, protective and domineering, Richard all but steals the film, his personality dimmed not a whit since the days he learned tennis from a book so he could teach his young daughters on the public courts of Compton, California.

“Venus and Serena,” from Magnolia Pictures, is playing in select theaters. Rating: *** (Evans)

Past ‘Stories’

“Stories We Tell” is the too-bland title of Sarah Polley’s spellbinding documentary about an incident -- I won’t say more -- in the past of her long-dead mother, Diane.

As witnesses she calls her father, her siblings and several family friends.

“I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us all in this way,” she says at one point.

Sometimes it appears as if they couldn’t, either. But they trusted her, and were right to. Polley is a generous (if tenacious) director. No one comes off looking bad.

Like “Searching for Sugar Man,” the movie artfully withholds information, raising questions and creating suspense by delaying the answers.

We see the speakers setting up anxiously for their interviews and Polley leaves in their hesitant pauses. Their self-consciousness matches the style of the film, which is always standing back and regarding itself and its methods.

The approach is meant to underline the complexity of memory, the many different ways a tale can be shaded. But in fact Diane Polley’s story isn’t all that ambiguous or deep. Apart from minor details and interpretations, the witnesses don’t often disagree about what happened.

Net Win

What does deepen as the people onscreen go on talking is our relationship with them: The more they reveal themselves, the more attractive they become.

Whatever Polley’s original intent was, the movie turns out to be about how much she loves the people in it.

“Stories We Tell,” from Roadside Attractions, is playing in New York. Rating: **** (Seligman)


What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on the “Gatsby” soundtrack and Jason Harper on cars.

To contact the writers on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com. and Craig Seligman at cseligman@mindspring.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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