Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sh!#ting on the Classics: The Great Gatsby (2013)

I recently attended director Baz Luhrmann’s new screen version of The Great Gatsby. No matter what you may have heard about this movie, I was not disappointed. I went in expecting to hate it, and I did!

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was the first book I read in high school that spoke to me loudly and clearly in a voice I could understand. Like all great literature, the book left behind a philosophical residue that I carry with me to this day. It spoke of dreams and romance and loss, three things I had not yet experienced at 15. It gave me a taste of adulthood. Gatsby is still one of my favorite books. I was alternately angered and bored by the new film version.

“But you’re an English teacher!” you cry. “You are impossibly biased. You have probably been teaching the book for twenty years or more! No movie adaptation could come close to satisfying you because it would never be the Gatsby you carry around in your head!”

Perhaps. But I am not alone in hate-hate-hating this film.


“Shush. Listen. That's F. Scott Fitzgerald turning in his grave.”
--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

“The central problem with Luhrmann's film is that when it's entertaining it's not Gatsby, and when it's Gatsby it's not entertaining.”
--Christopher Orr, The Atlantic Monthly

“It’s glib to suggest that Luhrmann has made a Great Gatsby for idiots; it’s more like he’s made it for infants...”
--Anne Hornaday, The Washington Post

 “Combining rap and hip hop music with The Great Gatsby is like mixing ketchup with caviar.”
--Avi Offer, NYC Movie Guru

“The movie ends up romanticizing what Fitzgerald spent the book de-romanticizing.”
--Ty Burr, Boston Globe

“Tone deaf and […] excessive.”
--Adam Riske, F This Movie!
The Plot In Brief: Did you NOT attend high school in the United States? (shrugs) Here goes: Nick Carraway (Spiderman) tells us about his summer. He goes on and on about his impossibly rich and flighty cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan); her impossibly rich and boorish husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton); and his neighbor, the impossibly rich and mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man with an intriguing secret.

This new adaptation is wanting in every way: the script, the performances, the pacing, the nausea-inducing camera work, and especially the music. I wanted to like it, really I did. I sensed that in the theater I saw this in last Friday night that the audience around me was digging it the most. As the film faded to black at its conclusion, several audience members applauded! That is becoming rare in movie theaters these days.

Patrick and I have spoken of films that people only profess to like because by liking said films, they are secretly patting themselves on the back for having good taste. This theory suggests that the audience members who applauded at the end of my screening were really applauding themselves for being intelligent and diligent enough to have once read an entire book. I am tired of great literature being turned into eye candy, fodder for the 3-D marketing machine, or clotheslines on which frauds like Baz Luhrmann can hang cheap, gaudy drapery.

Baz Luhrmann did it before with Romeo + Juliet.

FULL DISCLOSURE: DiCaprio is easily the best movie Gatsby ever. His performance is so spot-on, one wishes that a better film had been built around it. He even comes up with a weird, affected way to say Gatsby’s signature phrase, “old sport.” But Carey Mulligan’s Daisy does not convince us that this is a girl worth obsessing over for five years, and Joel Edgerton’s Tom comes across as a simple thug. I would say that Tobey Maguire’s performance is a train wreck – but at least a train wreck is dramatic and interesting to watch. He spends most of the film “thinking” and “talking.” Unfortunately, in the words of one critic, the two hardest things for Maguire to do on screen are “think” and “talk.”

And there is a LOT of talk, much of it unnecessary. The best example of this is a scene where we see all the lights go out in Gatsby’s mansion, followed by Maguire’s breathless narration, “The lights were out.” For a director who is celebrated for his visual style, Luhrmann sure doesn’t trust his images.
Luhrmann and Pierce are obviously in love with Fitzgerald’s prose; words often float on the screen like voice balloons in a crazy comic strip. Yet some of the changes they have introduced to the story (the lengthy prologue, for example) seem demented. Because so much of the film is narrated with excerpts from the book, audience members who read the book long ago seem to be mistaking this for faithfulness to the source. Yet the filmmakers get the novel’s first paragraph – one of the most famous opening passages in American literature – WRONG. The book’s equally famous closing paragraph is presented word-for-word… but mis-punctuated.  Oh, if only the filmmakers had been able to scrape together four dollars from their hundred-million-dollar budget to buy a used copy of the book from ANY USED BOOKSTORE IN AMERICA and proofread their goddamn screenplay.

Luhrmann and his frequent collaborator Craig Pierce had to be the worst English students ever, or they shared the worst English teacher ever. Perhaps they only read the Cliff Notes: Luhrmann’s mania for showing us that goddamned “green light” in every possible way, at every possible angle, takes an already strained metaphor from the book and renders it ludicrous. At times, the camera swoops down on the green light, circles it, traversing the bay that separates Gatsby’s mansion from Daisy’s like a seagull on steroids, honing in on the green light like a prized shrimp.  Other times, we see DiCaprio reaching for the green light in slow motion, over and over again. Somewhere Luhrmann learned that the green light was A VERY IMPORTANT SYMBOL. And by God, he is going to show it to us twenty or thirty times until we get the message. I fully expected to see this during the end credit scrawl: “Featuring Ryan Reynolds as the Green Light.” (No wait… he was the GREEN LANTERN!)

Most of the visual gimcrackery is distracting and puzzling; so much time is spent on this ornamentation instead of Fitzgerald’s story, that I was left thinking (as I am often left thinking after many modern romances) that the sole reason DiCaprio’s Gatsby and Mulligan’s Daisy fell in love in the first place was they are simply the two most attractive people in the film.

Luhrmann adds an unnecessary framing device in which Nick Carraway is being treated for alcoholism, and his therapist encourages him to “write it all down.” This turns the whole movie into an elaborate flashback. In a Twilight Zone-like moment at the end of the film, the audience is presented with a version of Gatsby that was somehow written by Nick Carraway. Funny, I thought The Great Gatsby was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Is “F. Scott Fitzgerald” a nom de plume for a fictional character that he himself created?

TANGENT: This reminds me of a discussion I often have with my students after we screen Singing In The Rain. The film ends with a billboard showing our hero and heroine starring in a movie together titled Singing In The Rain, and I ask my students if that is the film we have just seen. Of course, it cannot be since the film we have just seen starred Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, not their fictional counterparts “Don Lockwood” and “Kathy Seldon.” So is that billboard at the end advertising the film we have just watched—from another dimension? Or is it advertising the fictionalized version of the fiction we have just watched? Have I just blown your mind?

Near the film’s conclusion we see Nick finish the manuscript of his tale. He sets it on a table. The title page reads “Gatsby, by Nick Carraway.” Pause. Nick’s hand enters the frame with an ink pen…. and he writes “THE GREAT” above his title. I had to hold my hand over my mouth to keep from bursting into laughter in the crowded theater. This illustrates how simplistic and boneheaded this film is at its core: in that single act, Luhrmann’s Carraway negates all of the subtlety and ambiguity that make the novel a recognized classic.

I guess Baz here is answering that essay question: “Was Gatsby great? Discuss.”
CAVEAT: At least the finished film does not contain Filter’s miserable cover of the Turtles’ “Happy Together” featured in the trailer. Remember all that screaming when the slow motion started? We should all be happy for small things. Happy together. Because for more than three decades, folks have been listening to the Turtles’ light, carefree version of this tune and saying, “You know, if that song had an ear-piercing scream in the middle of it, then it would really be something.”

Because so much of Luhrmann’s aesthetic seems designed to poke and prod audiences like apes in a psychological experiment gone horribly awry, he is the exact wrong choice to direct a story whose chief strength is ambiguity. Luhrmann is best at visuals—at literally making things LITERAL. Metaphor and subtlety allude him, so his version of Gatsby comes across as obvious and strained, a standard soap opera story starring one-dimensional characters.

Every time a character hops in a car, the film willingly becomes a ten minute teaser for a new video game, or worse yet, an amusement park attraction, perhaps “Mr. Gatsby’s Wild Ride.” Impossible and cartoonish, these automotive forays reach their ridiculous apex when a character is run over. Because Luhrmann is at the helm, this is the most beautiful traffic accident ever filmed, with bodies floating through the air in slow motion, windshields cracking artistically like spider webs in a dream, and the unfortunate victim’s clothing color-coordinated to match her gaping wounds. Stunning. Also, ouch.

The irony here is that for all the visual tricks, flashy production design, fast cutting, and nausea-inducing CGI, this Gatsby is not great – it is boring. (This film is boring.) With the possible exception of Pain and Gain, I can not think of a recent film that FELT more like two hours and twenty minutes. I did not even see The Great Gatsby in 3-D. It still gave me a headache.

THE PUNCHLINE: Luhrmann’s next movie? Hamlet.


  1. Wow - Adam's review convinced me to not waste my time watching this at the theatre; yours may have convinced me to avoid it all together - loved reading about it though! I think "I did not even see The Great Gatsby in 3-D. It still gave me a headache." deserves to be an actual blurb for the movie.

    Great to see a return of "Shitting on the Classics" too, though I guess this was more of a case of you shitting on a movie that shat on a classic. Oh man, the scene you describe of him adding "The Great" to the title of his book - I'd laugh but I'm afraid I'll choke on the bile rising in my throat.

    P.S. I finally got around to watching Singing in the Rain a couple weeks ago and you did just blow my mind, sir!

    1. What will keep most literate people from laughing out loud at the "the GREAT" bit at the end is the fact that they are all throwing up a little in their mouths.

  2. It sounds like, from your high school story, that The Great Gatsby is to you as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is to me, as i mentioned in the Weekend Weigh-in. I feel very fortunate that we got a screen version that treats it with the respect and quality that it deserves.

    I know you joke, but I would be totally unsurprised by a Baz Luhrmann version of Hamlet. As long as he doesn't try to modernize it, and it doesn't have a bunch of script problems with butchered dialog and unnecessarily added or changed scenes, I would maybe be okay with it. However, there is little chance of that, so I am not okay with that prospect.

    1. Just appreciate how lucky you are. You love TKAM, and you got a GREAT movie! How I envy you.

  3. He wants DiCaprio as Hamlet. That would actually be really interesting to see, provided Luhrmann can keep out of the way of his performance.

    1. But Luhrmann has never been able to keep out of the way of the performances. And his track record with the bard ain't great. I would love to see DiCaprio attempt the melancholy Dane though-- with Scorsese directing!

  4. Reading this made me so happy! I don't know why; I'm sad that it wasted your time. It's not schadenfreude, either. Maybe it's just the way you write about a bad movie in a way that is so entertaining. Well done. I will be staying away. Not from you, from the movie.

  5. Well, I am glad that SOMETHING about the new Gatsby gave happiness to SOMEONE. Thanks for the kind words. Your Spielberg/Paul is Dead column last week was EPIC. I dug it the most, baby.

  6. As a teacher, I must report the Baz effect on students who opened the book two days after seeing the film. One asked, "Isn't Nick poor? In the film, he says that he can't marry a rich girl. He's too poor." This is not a small point. Long explanation: Nick works as a narrator of the novel precisely because he is from the very world that Gatsby yearns to join. Nick is wealthy, but currently lives in West Egg masquerading as middle class;Gatsby is poor, but is masquerading as a member of the wealthy elite. That tension is central to the novel. Nick HAS to be wealthy to make the antithesis work. Furthermore, if Nick was poor, Daisy would not be inviting him to her home for dinner. She would employ him as a gardener. I could go on. Great review, JB. Insightful as always.

  7. I am already writing quiz questions to catch those rapscallions who think the movie is a substitute for reading the book!

  8. I love this review. When I heard the announcement that it was going to be in 3D I was really sceptical, especially as it was Baz Luhrmann directing. The fact it was in 3D seems to be going against one of the main themes of the book, which is showing this lavish lifestyle as hollow. It could be a very interesting way to be self - critical: to be critical of 3D whilst using it. After all there could be a parallel drawn between how many people pointlessly spend so much money on lavish objects and how Hollywood is spending money pointlessly on making the movies to look more lavish (in principle not in practice)but both are for superficial and egotistical means. However, I thought given his track record Luhrmann was not going to explore this so much as actually try and use the 3D to be just a spectacle. Why then choose such a beautiful piece of literature to "adapt" if you want to do that?

  9. Oh oh, now I run into trouble.
    Just minutes ago I posted on the "Better yet" columns, how many movies I´ve seen and now I have to admit that I never saw the Redford/Farrow Gatsby, I never read the novel and, worst of all, I had a good time with Luhrmann`s Gatsby.
    Maybe in this case it´s an advantage that I don´t know the novel and the first movie.
    Of course I knew about Luhrmann`s flashy style, his strange mix of new and old and every visual gimmick he uses to run the audience over. But I like that in the right film and here it worked for me.

    But after reading this review (and some others) I think it is time to read the novel. Not necessarily to re-evaluate this movie but to understand, why this is such an important american novel.