I saw The Great Gatsby at midnight last night. Below is my short run-down as to why it sucks.
One must have a distorted sense of aesthetic and ego to read one of the great works of world literature and then think: you know what, this could really use a dash of CGI and some Jay-Z. But that’s what Baz Luhrmann has done in his new screen adaptation The Great Gatsby, a film so utterly devoid of depth and feeling that it functions more as an extended music video with a movie trailer tacked at the end. On the screen there is massive glitz overshadowing barely a glimmer of human personality and plot.
But the problem with this newest adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel is not that it is as dizzyingly computerized as The Hobbit, or that the soundtrack would make F. Scott roll over in his grave (while covering his ears); it’s that the movie has no sense of pace or dramatic tension, and no fully rounded characters. It has a single scene of real dialogue (which is full of tension and intensity, and is the film’s crescendo) and two interesting shots (one is of the facade of an apartment building à la Rear Window, where we are given a glimpse into a dozen miniaturized lives. The other is of a clock, and is perhaps the only take in the movie which isn’t brushed over with a veneer of electric gloss).
In the film’s first twenty minutes, the camera makes many swoops into the canyons of Manhattan and across the bay between East and West Egg, but it barely settles on a single character for more than a minute. By the half-hour mark, you’ll be realizing that all this digitization is actually a distraction — this augmentation of reality is an artifice, and not true storytelling. By forty-minutes, you’ll be asking, Where the hell is Gatsby? (When he finally does appear, he is framed by blooming firecrackers and a big band version of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. It’s an admittedly iconic shot. No one has done so much with fireworks and Gershwin since Woody Allen’s opening of Manhattan.)
In the novel, Fitzgerald captures the ethereal sophistication and savoir faire of Gatsby’s parties, observing, “… men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” But in the film, Gatsby’s smooth blue gardens are replaced by raunchy dance floors and a raucous pool scene; and those men and girls are hardly the flittering presences of the book — they are bouncers and ravers. They’re like a crowd at a party at the Playboy mansion, only they look more plastic.
The overarching theme of the Gatsby story is that of romance — or rather romanticization. And there is nothing less romantic than ‘H to the Izzo’ (yes, it’s in the movie). Luhrmann has taken a story that should sway with the seduction of Sinatra and made it convulse under the synthetic distortions of Will.I.Am. The soundtrack is the weakest part of this movie, and is one of the worst — or perhaps worst suited — scores that I’ve ever seen in a film. Even if one could cram Jay-Z into the Jazz Age, why would you want to?
And that question generalizes to all the lights, costumes, songs — all the flash, fringe, and flapping that make up this whole mess-of-a-movie. Even if you could, why would you? Sure, there’s a lot going on, but this sumptuous buffet of color and sound is crammed down the audience’s throats; and instead of being a subtle pâté de foie gras, it is corn mash. And we in the audience are the ones being force-fed.
There is one point in the film (pictured in the screenshot above) where Jay Gatsby has brought in a sea of crystal vases filled with flowers to decorate Nick Carraway’s humble cottage, where he anxiously awaits the arrival of his love, Daisy. He wonders aloud, “Do you think it’s too much?” and holds his cafeful gaze on Nick, who then shrugs, politely, “I think it’s what you want.”
In the case of Luhrmann’s movie, it is too much. And it’s not what we want.
I saw The Great Gatsby at midnight last night. A mistake: wait for the video release.
It’s worth noting that in the 88 years since it was published, no one has been able to adapt Fitzgerald’s classic into a movie. Jack Clayton’s 1974 version with Robert Redford is just as bad, although in very different ways, from the Luhrmann-DiCaprio edition.