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THIS 'GATSBY' NEVER EVEN TRIES TO BE GREAT.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

Filmmakers seem to approach ``The Great Gatsby'' with perhaps an appropriate hesitancy - it is, after all, considered by many to be the Great American Novel. That, however, has resulted in adaptations that are a bit too refined, a bit too drained of the feckless fun F. Scott Fitzgerald's contemporaries were enjoying when he wrote the book.

A&E's ``Great Gatsby'' - the fourth film version, and first since the hermetically sealed Robert Redford-Mia Farrow incarnation more than a quarter-century ago - suffers from much the same problem. Casting is chockablock with missteps, including Mira Sorvino as Daisy Buchanan and Toby Stephens as Gatsby.

Fitzgerald's book, of course, was written at the height of the Jazz Age, and seemed with eerie prescience to predict the sorry end of all that high living. It's narrated by Nick (Paul Rudd), who moves to unfashionable West Egg just outside New York City, near Daisy, to whom he's vaguely related, and her famously fatuous husband Tom (Martin Donovan), who live in recherche East Egg.

Between them dwells Gatsby, who before the war fell in love with Daisy and after the war lost her because he wasn't wealthy enough. He has since more than compensated for that shortcoming, and pines for Daisy in the midst of his lavish and hedonistic parties. He befriends Nick in order to reunite with Daisy; as she's in a particularly loveless marriage - Tom scarcely makes an effort to conceal his affairs - she succumbs to his renewed affections. This being Fitzgerald, tragedy ensues.

Writer John McLaughlin and director Robert Markowitz have remained pretty faithful to the book, including Fitzgerald's most ominous symbols - the green light that emanates from the Buchanans' home and the eyes that gaze intensely from the faded optician's sign overlooking the modest home of Tom's mistress. Most television sort of resolutely refuses to involve itself with symbolism, so we should probably be a little grateful that McLaughlin and Markowitz bother at all, but things can get a tad heavy-handed.

Performances, on the other hand, are murky and benign: Everyone seems to think everyone in the '20s was defined by their ramrod-straight carriage and phony good cheer. Stephens looks slick enough for Gatsby, but has unfortunately kept his character entirely on the surface. Sorvino simply lacks the sort of ethereal shimmer required of Daisy; when she spouts lines like ``Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?'' or ``You dream on, you absolute little dream'' or ``God, I'm so sophisticated!'' it sounds dumber than Fitzgerald no doubt intended.

Rudd is the only performer here who allows his character to inhabit and burble around in society's fastidious niceties of the era, though the imperiousness that Donovan brings to his roles in Hal Hartley films serves him well here. Many minor characters - particularly those playing drunks slogging their way through a never-ending happy hour - seem at times almost amateurish.

Without flesh-and-blood performances to involve you in these characters' sorry travails, the tragedy is muted. The story's there, and the production boasts a polished sheen visually, but mood is everything in Fitzgerald, and in this ``Gatsby,'' the mood is as antiseptic as a hospital corridor.

``THE GREAT GATSBY''

What: Remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age masterpiece.

The stars: Toby Stephens, Mira Sorvino, Paul Rudd, Martin Donovan, Francie Swift.

Where: A&E.

When: 8 tonight; also Jan. 20.

Our rating: Two and one half stars
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jan 14, 2001
Words:572
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