Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Sh!#ting on the Classics: The Great Gatsby (2013)
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.
THE CRITICS RAVE:
“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!
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 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?
THE FUNNIEST THING I HAVE SEEN IN A MOVIE THEATER ALL YEAR:
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.”
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.