The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and perhaps the most widely loved and respected book of the twentieth century. Adapting a classic like that requires care, bravery and, most of all, respect. So that makes Baz Luhrmann, the man who turned Romeo and Juliet into a laughably overblown episode of Jersey Shore, the perfect man for the job. Wait, no, I meant that makes him literally the worst person for the job. When adapting Nick Carraway’s timeless tale of lost love, wait, what? Nick Carraway, the protagonist of the book, wrote the book? From inside a sanatorium? Oh goddamnit Baz, you’ve done it again.
What I was going to say before I got distracted by Luhrmann’s first crime against literature, was that his adaptation seems to speak of a man more in love with the setting of Gatsby than the actual narrative. Luhrmann clearly feels he was born to capture the overblown excess of the 20s – a wild, decadent period of booming economic success and reckless extravagance. In the same way he sought to bring out the glamour and glitziness of Moulin Rouge and Shakespeare, Luhrmann strives to capture Fitzgerald’s world in all its overblown, kaleidoscopic vividness.
This is what you’d think Luhrmann, normally so renowned for his aesthetics, would succeed at above all else. Instead it sums up everything wrong with his adaptation. The world he presents is bright, but blinding; glamorous, but kitsch; lavish, yet vapid; and desperate to be beautiful, but instead ugly and overwhelmingly unpleasant to look at. It’s almost unwatchable at times, so caught up is itself in its own grandiose hyperactivity. The camera swoops and dives and zooms with dizzying, whirling frequency. Everything is much too fast and much too garish.
And then everything is draped in CGI so poor that you don’t just see the seams, you see them so clearly that you just want to tear them apart. I don’t think there’s a single landscape shot in the entire film that isn’t crap CGI. I’m pretty sure Gatsby’s hand, yes, his goddamn hand, is CGI for the first half hour of the film. I’m pretty sure Nick Carraway’s house, which we see to be a real set on numerous occasions, is even rendered in CGI half the time. I’m pretty sure there isn’t even a single conversation that doesn’t contain at least one terrible, needless, green-screened background that we definitely just saw without CGI like 5 seconds ago. His New York, rather than being a lavish, bright, bustling explosion of life, is perhaps the most soulless depiction I’ve ever seen.
Still, it’s The Great Gatsby; you can only go so wrong with a book as well-written as that. I mean you can guarantee that at least the script will be good, right? If only that was the case. If only. Obviously they couldn’t just regurgitate the book word-for-word, but still, you’d expect the gulf in quality between the old and new to be at least a little less yawning. Somehow Luhrmann’s take has managed to drain all the subtlety and power and beauty of Fitzgerald out of the film; the dialogue alternates between the heavy-handed, the trite and the insipid. And then that script is spoken by Tobey Maguire, turning in a performance that solidifies his status as possibly the most irritating actor in Hollywood. The man even manages to make classic literature boring. The closing lines of Gatsby are down in history as among the finest in the canon of English literature; Maguire proceeds to intone them in the dullest manner possible.
The first half of the film, all empty glitz and schizophrenic direction, manages to commit the greatest crime of all, one that I doubt I shall ever forgive Luhrmann for.
It made me feel ashamed to love The Great Gatsby.
I went in with low expectations but I never expected to genuinely feel shame at having read Fitzgerald’s classic. That is the degree to which Luhrmann defiles it. It’s like Project X with flappers, culminating in Gatsby’s unbearably cheesy introduction. The film makes an absolute mockery of itself and everyone in it.
DiCaprio, in spite of my reservations at his casting and a shaky start, is actually one of the few bright spots in the film. I’d compare him to the green light at the end of the dock but that would just remind me of how the symbolism of that, and everything else, is hurled at the viewer like a brick to the face. Jordan Baker, played by newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, puts in a similarly redemptive turn. Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan are serviceable as the Buchanans, though perhaps portrayed in an oversimplified manner. Daisy in particular loses the cold, calculating edge to her character and instead just seems like a silly woman thoughtlessly dancing between men. Also, they cast an Indian man as Meyer Wolfsheim, a decision that completely baffles me.
The result of this mix of overblown visuals, unthinkably poor scripting, acting that feels more like jokey rehearsal and wildly, inexplicably incongruous music from JAY-Z(!!) is a truly abysmal film that upsets me in just about every way possible. It’s a soulless, artificial and utterly ridiculous adaptation. Maybe that was what Luhrmann was going for in some kind of super meta way. If it was then that was a terrible idea.
It’s like he just didn’t get the book. He plays it like a melodramatic love story and ends up capturing none of the hope and tragedy that defines Gatsby. Love scenes and longing looks abound, but the moments that capture the soul of the book, moments like the funeral meeting between Nick and Gatsby’s father, either aren’t there or feel rushed and hollow.
I hate this film and I hate Baz Luhrmann. This is an aggressively bad adaptation, one that doesn’t just disappoint, it actively angers and upsets.