Monday, May 13, 2013

Gatsby in 3D: Hipster Director Baz Luhrmann's Infuriating But Redeeming Take On A Literary Classic

During my college years, like so many nascent writers I was obsessed with the "Lost Generation," the coterie of disillusioned but extraordinarily gifted American authors who lived and worked in Paris after World War I. They included Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, Sherwood Anderson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Among these notable wordsmiths, Fitzgerald is my favorite. He was, in my opinion, the finest author of the 20th century. His masterwork, The Great Gatsby, is arguably the best of all American novels.

So when I heard that Fitzgerald's epic/tragic tale of Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, Daisy Buchanan and the dark side of the American dream was being taken on by tragically hip director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo & JulietMoulin Rouge), whose sensibilities seem better suited to music videos and video games than film versions of literary classics, I just said to myself, "Uh oh." 
After watching the The Great Gatsby in 3-D, however, I can say that I have never been more conflicted about a movie in my life. I wanted to hate it. But I loved it. 

Luhrmann, to his discredit, never trusts a story to tell itself, not even The Great Gatsby, which is arguably the greatest story ever told. He just has to fluff it up and make it as palatable as possible to his favorite demographic: the easily bored 18-34-year-olds. He's like an insecure editor at a third-tier publishing house who feels compelled to splash red ink all over every manuscript.

As I watched the new Gatsby, which after a long and expensive marketing blitz opened to $51.1 million at the North American box office this past weekend, I found myself rolling my eyes a few times as the film's style worked to overwhelm its substance. Fitzgerald's timeless story is nearly pummeled into submission by Luhrmann's super-slick CGI special effects and preposterously out-of-place modern rock and hip hop music. No offense to hip hop, but Gatsby is a story of 1920's flappers, not 2013 rappers. 

Luhrmann, who turns symbols into sledgehammers, even has the audacity to change major plot points, including narrator Carraway's back story. It's an interesting if unnecessary add. The film also lazily employs too much exposition and assumes viewers have never read a novel, let alone this novel, and don't know the definition of subtlety. 

But that all said, to my great surprise, the film works. It really works. Why? In part because, thankfully, the second half features fewer of Luhrmann's modern filmmaking gimmicks and settles into the story (what a concept). For all its messy misfires, questionable casting choices and unnecessary excesses, Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby is a transcendent and at times brilliant film.

The Great Gatsby is a story of hope, above all else, and Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay, gets that. He makes it far too easy for the audience to figure that out, too, but he gets it. I just wish he'd stop pandering to young audiences that respond more to three-dimensional special effects than three-dimensional characters. Evidently Luhrmann, like the late director John Hughes, has some sort of pathological obsession with all things young and hip. The thing is, Gatsby doesn't need to be reinvented, resuscitated or injected with "cool." The story speaks for itself.

As opposed to, say, Jay McInerney, who's effectively brought a Fitzgeraldian vibe into modern times with original works such as Bright Lights, Big City, Luhrmann loves to poach and modernize literary classics to sell tickets and spread his art. But this time he got it right. There are moments in Gatsby, especially the breathtaking and heartbreaking final 20 minutes, that make you think that if he had focused the entire film on the internal and not the external, this could have been a classic.

But it so works. By the movie's conclusion I found myself right where I was after I finished the novel for the first time: pensive, speechless, and thinking about the green light, Jay's uncorrupted love for Daisy, and how he was a much better person than all the soulless old-money scoundrels he emulated. 

This story relies so heavily on Fitzgerald's poignant prose, symbolism, and the reader's imagination, I'm not sure it can be made into a perfect movie. There have been several efforts over the past century, including a silent film in 1926, a 1949 version starring Alan Ladd, a 1975 take with Robert Redford, and a 2000 TV movie starring Toby Stephens. The Redford version, which until Baz's take was by far the best known, wasn't great, but it was better than many critics thought.

But the new Gatsby is the best of the lot, despite the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio, a gifted actor who's as capable as Redford if not as effortlessly charismatic, is in over his head portraying such an iconic literary figure. He was excellent as Howard Hughes in The Aviator and good as FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar. But those characters were flesh and blood. I'm not sure any actor can or should even try to live up to the mythical Gatsby. 

Leo's accent is a problem, especially when he says "old sport." Luhrmann should have taken off his 3-D glasses, taken Leo aside and told him to drop the accent. It's a huge distraction. But at other moments Leo's acting chops shine. He brings an almost childlike innocence and vulnerability to Gatsby. Accent problems aside, Leo is as good a choice as any.

Botton line? A lot of teens and young adults who were forced to read The Great Gatsby in freshman English class now have a Gatsby to call their own. A Gatsby that speaks to them. But is that a good thing? Will they still understand and embrace the story's deep, dark themes? Or do they like it because it's about parties and special effects and has Jay-Z on the soundtrack?

While the film understands the book better than I had expected, many people who don't know the story will see this movie and then, when they turn to the book, find it, like, you know, totally boring by comparison. Luhrmann has brought this story to a new generation, which is a good thing. But at what cost? I must wonder: Is Scott smiling at the success of this moving if over-the-top adaptation of his masterpiece? Or is he spinning? Maybe, like me, he's doing a bit of both.


  1. War, love, hope, tragedy, and, above all else, "unnecessary excesses." Great movie, nice review.

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