05/07/2013 01:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'The Great Gatsby' Review: You Can't Have It Both Ways


the great gatsby review

I am a firm believer that, if you're going to attempt something, you should give it 100 percent or don't attempt it at all. This is why I don't attempt a lot of things. Some might consider this lazy. I at least pretend that it's conviction. (It doesn't help that I'm also lazy.) Anyway, this is what I found so infuriating about Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby. It's wary half-heartedness disguised as trashy spectacle. If you're going to do trashy spectacle, at least have the conviction to go all the way.

I should be the target audience for this interpretation of The Great Gatsby. You know, the type who has never read the novel but sometimes fakes his way through conversations about it with words like "classic" and just contrary enough phrases like, "I'm not sure I entirely agree, but I see what you're saying," before quickly changing the subject to ALF or whatever.

My point is: if there's an audience for an over-the-top, colorful, Cliff-Noted, hip hop-injected version of The Great Gatsby, it's me. I didn't enter the theater feeling defensive about the sanctity of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original work. "How dare a Lana Del Rey song appear alongside such a classic piece of literature?" is something I would never say. I went into this movie wanting to see ramped-up nonsense. I went into this movie wanting to experience a hip hop-infused caricature of the Roaring Twenties. Instead, I almost fell asleep, twice, during an afternoon screening.

It all started promisingly enough. The first 45 minutes of The Great Gatsby amount to pure trashy spectacle. Hip hop music from 2013 plays over stock footage of New York City circa 1922, and the effect is actually quite odd and wonderful. During the first act, Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws a number of lavish parties, and they are presented in a colorful and eccentric way that only Baz Luhrmann could pull off. This is exactly what I wanted. (And, I must say, no one can raise a glass to the camera quite like Leonardo DiCaprio.) Sadly, at the end of those 45 minutes, there were still 100 more left to watch.

For whatever reason, The Great Gatsby decides not to go "all in" on spectacle and, instead, eventually tries to become something that resembles a faithful adaptation. This movie wants it both ways and, in turn, winds up being not very good at either.

I suppose that I should describe the basic plot of The Great Gatsby. Then again, I have already admitted that I have never read the book (for the record: this is not something I'm proud of -- I blame the Missouri public school system), so you probably know the basic story better than I do.

Jay Gatsby is a loving father of a family that adopts a wisecracking alien ... OK, I'm sorry, even now I feel a desire to avoiding talking about The Great Gatsby. And, again, that's the point. When the first trailer debuted (which was already a year ago), it played up the pageantry. I mean, this was Gatsby in 3D, for Pete's sake! This was going to be the Moulin Rouge! of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels. Instead, we get 45 minutes of what we were promised, followed by an additional hour and a half of DiCaprio calling Tobey Maguire "old sport." (Yes, I realize this is from the novel, but I can't help but think this was also what DiCaprio called Maguire when they were both members of the Pussy Posse.)

To be fair, perhaps this was an impossible task. The Great Gatsby is not Moulin Rouge! -- there's a complex and intricate story that still has to be told. Because, if not, the movie could have just been titled Great and featured nothing but people dressed in 1920s style dancing to contemporary music. Instead, when these parties stop, it's as if Luhrmann decides, Oh, yeah, the story. Well, I suppose if we have to ... I won't go as far to say that Luhrmann was disinterested in Fitzgerald's story, but there was more passion present in the party scenes than there was in the all-revealing would-be climax at the Plaza. Perhaps it would have worked better if Jay Gatsby had started singing "Empire State of Mind." (I'm half serious.)

I didn't know quite what to expect before I saw a Baz Luhrmann-directed version of The Great Gatsby. I did expect it to be loud. I did expect it to be big. I did expect it to infuse the eccentricities of today and the 1920s. I really wanted to like this movie. What I didn't expect it to do was waste my time. I should have stayed home and watched that episode of ALF.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.