The Reel Deal
THE GREAT GATSBY
A Reel Deal Film Review
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 2 out of 5
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby begins with the following lines, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’” Luckily, I’m fairly convinced that director Baz Luhrmann and rapper / hiphop impresario Jay-Z have had the advantages I’ve had, and then some, so excuse me if I don’t tread so lightly while criticizing their lavish failure of a film.
I’ll concede that Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is certainly the most expensive and most elaborate music video Jay-Z has ever helped produce. But, as a cohesive film, and more importantly as a representative cinematic adaptation of the great American novel upon which it is based, it’s got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one.
In fact, all the “bitches” (male and female) are just right: the casting is the one thing that I’d argue is pitch perfect. Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, with his mix of boyish charm and childish abandon, debonair style and creepy posturing. Real life DiCaprio friend, Tobey Maguire, is the ideal doting Nick Carraway to DiCaprio’s smarmy Gatsby. They’re all great, the whole cast: Carey Mulligan as the careless (and thoughtless?) Daisy Buchanan, Joel Edgerton as the entirely unlikeable Tom Buchanan, Elizabeth Debicki as the mysterious sports star Jordan Baker, and Isla Fisher as the tragic Myrtle Wilson.
The problems begin when you witness the spoiling of such an exquisite cast in the hands of director Baz Luhrmann. Luhrmann’s dizzying visual style in theory may seem perfectly suited for an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic of American literature, but it is, I’d argue, also grossly mismatched. On the one hand, the sort of visual excess he’s shown in films like William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! is the kind of in-your-face stylization that the mannered 1974 adaptation of the book starring Robert Redford was sorely lacking. Like this film, that one wasn’t terrible, but it also somehow couldn’t manage to capture the essence of the book.
Yet Luhrmann’s style also weirdly doesn’t work because, while it amps up the artifice in ways the novel warrants, it simultaneously feels so foreign to the time period it’s pretending to depict. It’s a hiphop-blasting, 3D-spewing, cacophony of anachronistic nonsense. The film’s “Roaring Twenties” don’t roar like a lion, they meow like a LOLcat. Transplanting the story and themes of The Great Gatsby to today obviously could and potentially would work, but instead he places it in his stylized version of the 1920s and spices these times up with film techniques and flourishes of today not as a way to comment on our current cultural excess–something which could have quite easily been teased out of the text–but because he wanted to, in the words of Fitzgerald’s granddaughter, Eleanor “Bobby” Lanahan, ”make it very lively for our modern [eyes and] ears.” If he wanted to do a fairy tale version of Gatsby outside of time, then why didn’t he treat it in the same way he treated Romeo & Juliet? He should have placed the story in that kind of retro-futuristic fantasy setting rather than in this pseudo-1920s that looks and feels like an elaborate flapper-themed costume party, or rather another “themed land” at a Disneyland amusement park, just down Main Street, USA from Frontierland and Tomorrowland, where Baudrillardian simulacra meets Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality.
This Disney-ified “imaginary world” of old New York is replete with Cinderella’s castle-style homes on East and West Egg. In fact, whenever Luhrmann would pan his camera out to show Gatsby’s mansion, I half-expected Tinkerbell to show up and fly over the building in an arc, as in the old Walt Disney Pictures logo. (Having seen Moulin Rouge! with Kylie Minogue in the role of “The Green Fairy,” I wasn’t entirely sure this wouldn’t randomly happen.) Sadly, as it stands, the world of the film feels much too faked and forced–which, if put to better use, perhaps could have itself been a furthering of Gatsbian themes, but which instead just left me feeling cold and empty, void of the intellectual depth or the emotional resonance that exists in the novel, even through the elaborate layers of excess.
But let’s go back to the beginning: About a year ago, when the first teaser trailer was released, we had a startling sign that there might be trouble a-brewing. It seemed like a simple mistake at the time, but for a moment in that first glimpse preview, there was a very telling oversight: in a shot of Times Square a neon advertisement for the Ziegfeld Follies could be seen where “Ziegfeld” was misspelled. That’s a perfect metaphor for what this film felt like to me as I watched: a misspelled version of The Great Gatsby, made for a generation of tweeters who don’t know the difference between your and you’re and ur.
Another of the “Gatsby follies” that potentially that early trailer had clued us in to was the music. This is one of my biggest problems with the film. The inclusion of Jay-Z as the executive producer of the film’s soundtrack was, in my humble estimation, a huge misstep. Though it assured that the soundtrack would sell oh-so-many units (as it’s destined to do), it also assured that Baz Luhrmann’s uncanny ability to fuse recastings of modern music into fantastical stories of the past would be stifled. He did it so well in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, so how did this film’s music go so wrong? I partly blame Jay(-Z) not understanding Jay (Gatsby). But forgetting Jay-Z’s gross misreading of the story as “aspirational,” the decision by both Baz and Jay that hiphop is our modern equivalent of jazz (very debatable), and that therefore the soundtrack should be hiphop-heavy rather than jazz-heavy really just didn’t work for me at all. If you’re going to make a movie version of the ultimate Jazz Age novel, it might help to actually use jazz music, even if you just take modern songs (as he did with Moulin Rouge!), and rearrange them with some new orchestration into sounding like ole timey jazz standards (which they did do with a song or two here, but that doesn’t seem like what the soundtrack was generally going for overall).
Yet another issue I had with the film was the frame story of Nick Carraway as a drunk in a sanatorium, which not only gets the character wrong, in a way, but also felt too cliched, too facile a way to frame the narrative. That cliché is topped only by the horrible use of actual typed and handwritten text of some of the novel’s best lines appearing on the screen at various points throughout the film, as if in an attempt to add some sort of poetic or literary weight, and to remind you: hey, you’re watching an adaptation of a great American novel here, click-clack, click-clack, see he’s typing it out for you! These amateurish devices one would hope Luhrmann was better than, but obviously I’ve been giving the man too much credit.
Too much credit. That, I fear, may be the biggest problem (the one that acts as the foundation for all the 98 others). Perhaps we’ve all been giving this man too much credit all along. I think that what The Great Gatsby does best is it pulls back the curtain to show us that the wizard of Baz is more of an amateur than an auteur. I’m convinced now that Luhrmann’s overblown MTV aesthetic is amateurish, and perhaps always has been. Now admittedly that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have worked in some of his previous films (I’m not quite willing to dismiss his earlier movies–which I’ve loved in the past–without rewatching them), but it does mean that it won’t continue to work if he doesn’t grow the hell up, and learn how to tell a story the way it needs to be told rather than merely shoehorning a classic tale into his overwrought, frenetic 90s visual style. His is the kind of filmmaking that wowed me back in middle school, back when I thought Weird Al was a really, really clever lyricist. And then I grew up…and apparently neither Baz nor Al did.
If movies were put in the same categories as books on Barnes & Noble bookshelves, Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby would be placed in the YA section (that’s “Young Adult” for any of you infrequent bookstore shoppers out there). It’s made for the tweens who love Twilight. And, well, on that front, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt: I suppose it’s much better than all four Twilight films as an over-the-top, fantasy romance, but doesn’t Fitzgerald’s iconic book deserve better than that? I’m still waiting for a GREAT Great Gatsby to hit theaters. I don’t think any novel is unfilmable, so I won’t listen to the critics who claim that Fitzgerald’s masterpiece just can’t be converted to celluloid, and neither should you. If something as seemingly unfilmable as William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch can spawn a magnificent film adaptation, then The Great Gatsby should be able to as well. It just might be a few more decades until someone finally makes the quintessential film version of it. Next time a filmmaker in the future has his Gatsby adaptation green lit, I’ll beat on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into my local movie theater. Hopefully then though, regardless of who it is that’s in the director’s chair, they’ll get it right. Someday someone’s got to.
But for now, we have the film that we have. So if you can let your critical faculties go on holiday for a few hours, and just get swept up in a ridiculous extended Jay-Z music video made for tweeting tweens who are certain that Lana del Rey is the second coming of Christ, or at least the second coming of Nancy Sinatra (that is if they even know who Nancy Sinatra is), then by all means, enjoy. It’s not all bad…it’s just got 99 problems (and, who knows, maybe my bitching is one?).
The Great Gatsby is a film directed by Baz Luhrmann, written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce, based on the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, and Isla Fisher. A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures
Design by Lulu Vottero
Film Still from The Great Gatsby, Photography Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures