There I was, sitting in the Ziegfield Theater NYC, rocking my 3-D glasses, popcorn in hand, amped for “The Great Gatsby.” As an english major and avid reader, I mostly loathe the adaption of classic novels on film, but I was surprisingly optimistic about “Gatsby” for one major reason–Baz Luhrmann directed it. For those who don’t know, Baz Luhrmann directed the Claire Danes, Leo Dicaprio version “Romeo + Juliet” which was totally awesome, and thus, I had high hopes for “Gatsby.” And so I sat, smudging popcorn butter on my 3-D glasses waiting for a similar thrill and well…it just didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped.
The major problem with “Gatsby” is Luhrmann’s desire to so closely parallel the novel. The plot of “Gatsby” is pretty tough to swallow: a poor lovestruck man (Gatsby) turns to a life of crime to amass enough wealth to impress his lost love Daisy, who comes from the old-money and has married in to an even wealthier family. Our narrator and Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway (Toby McGuire) coincidently moves in next door to Gatsby and becomes both witness and reluctant participant to a society class whose lies, betrayal, and love of excess, lead to their ultimate destruction. Honestly, upon revisiting the story, I realized whatever my 15 year-old mind remembers about digging F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in high school had far more to do with the prose, symbolism and literary techniques than the plot, which is actually pretty crappy.
Luhrmann attempts to retain much of that classic Fitzgerald’s literary style through voiceover and a flashback framework that finds our narrator Nick in a mental hospital diagnosed as ‘morbidly’ drunk. For different reasons, both of these techniques miss the mark. Nick’s voiceover is flat and dull and the sometimes abruptly placed hospital scenes completely impede the pacing of the plot development. About 75 minutes in, I found myself checking the my cell phone for the time and wishing they’d get on with it already!
This is not to say that the first hour of Gatsby isn’t deeply entertaining. The booming party scenes, fast-paced editing, intensely colorful visual style and highly choreographed scenes felt like the first act of an awesomely well-done broadway musical. (I should note that because this film is shot in 3D my likening it to Broadway is probably symptomatic of feeling like the characters arms and legs were going to kick me in the head.) With Jay-Z (who is listed as an Executive Producer) songs thumping in the background, the first-hour plays like a riveting set-up for something great–and then it drops you off a cliff. The second half of the film trudges along like a bad funeral procession, one woefully drawn out scene after another watching the misguided romantic dealings of characters you absolutely cannot root for lead to their demise.
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But the real disappointment was the absence from a true modern narrative in Luhrmann’s Gatsby (which has already been told on screen five times prior) in this post-2008-recession American era. Why tell the story of excess, wealth and opulence as a path to demise in 2013 and do absolutely nothing to give the story some modern day resonance? Why not set Gatsby is 2006 NYC and keep the prose and language and play up sub-prime mortgage crisis?
There are some mild attempts to dabble in a dialogue about White fascination with Black culture highlighted by the misguided use of Jay-Z’s music to underscore ignorance, greed and excess. This is mostly blatantly punctuated by an oddly placed scene of Black people in a car riding across the Brooklyn Bridge popping champagne driven by a White driver. I didn’t get it the joke, but the rest of the audience had a hearty chuckle. To suggest that Blacks experienced their own version of the “roaring 20’s” but not develop a single Black character beyond a passing cameo is a failure. Faces of color do appear, but as servants, entertainers and
strippers burlesque dancers. All of this made the Jay-Z score even more unsettling. Despite all of his “money, power & respect” it seems that Hov fulfills the same limited roll the film portrays–the Black, popular entertainer who sometimes gets invited to the party but rarely influences the dialogue.
Overall, Gatsby left me disappointed and unfulfilled. Had Luhrmann been daring enough to depart from the novel and introduce his own direction in to the timeless story, he could have created something truly magical. Instead, Luhrmann fans, like me, will likely go home and pop-in their copies of “Romeo+Juliet” to get a true fix.
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