Some kind of congratulations should be in order for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Somehow, Luhrmann has managed to turn F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic 1920s novel of wealth, excess and the death of the American Dream into something I never thought possible — dull.
Yes, despite the extravagant cast list (a blond Leonardo DiCaprio! a blond Carey Mulligan! a nonblond Tobey Maguire!), the decadent special effects, the soundtrack produced by Jay-Z and the visionary flair of the man who brought you “Moulin Rouge,” Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” should be retitled “The Great Flatsby.” It is impossible to reconstruct the entire travesty in only 600 words, but here are a few scenes that illustrate why “The Great Gatsby” is the “Anonymous” of 2013.
First, there is voice-over. Lots of it. This isn’t surprising given the nature of Fitzgerald’s doleful, precise prose. This also isn’t rare. In the 1974 adaptation, Sam Waterson gives voice to the same familiar words of the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway. However, Luhrmann has taken this frame a step further. Here, we meet Carraway (an expectedly goopy Maguire) as a post-Gatsby mental institution patient. His illness? Morbid alcoholism. His prescription? Writing. So, like with Walter Salles’ recent attempt at translating revered novel to film (“On the Road”), the audience is treated to an endless series of writing montages clumsily hamfisted into a lazy, flashback narrative.
Next, we must meet Gatsby. He is the titular character, after all, and his introduction is accordingly treated with supreme pomp and circumstance. In the midst of one of Gatsby’s orgiastic circus parties, the camera swoops and tilts, spins and dips to reveal the CGI equivalent of Ke$ha’s wildest dreams. Glitter, streamers and scantily clad sirens writhe in and out of this kinetic nightmare when out of nowhere, the propulsive chords of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” begin. The music builds, the party reaches its chaotic height and just as the cymbals chime, there he is, the center of this entire endeavor — Gatsby.
It’s a bombastic and daring scene. Leo smiles with an enigmatic charm. He’s confident but closed off — just as Gatsby should be. But that’s it. As the radiant, climactic horns of “Rhapsody in Blue” fade into some mediocre contemporary pop cover, Gatsby retreats into his palace on West Egg, and with that, the film peters off. For the next two hours or so, we are left with haphazard anticlimax.
These are only two scenes in a film rife with mistakes and miscalculations. It wouldn’t be difficult to add Luhrmann’s off-putting literalization of Fitzgerald’s subtle metaphors. In one scene, when Carraway pontificates about seeing himself in the face of every man, Luhrmann actually cuts between Maguire staring at another Maguire in the street. It also would be easy to describe the jarring editing, the way Luhrmann muffles critical scenes with Maguire’s mopey monologues or the depthless, artificial acting DiCaprio, Maguire and Mulligan provide. But all this would, like the film, be too long and only too unnecessary.
It would be easy enough to say Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” mirrors the vapidity and the hollowness of Fitzgerald’s characters. In this way, Luhrmann far surpasses any other adaptation for his sheer commitment to the idea that “The Great Gatsby” is about surplus. Luhrmann certainly provides an overflow of CGI, schlocky acting, melodrama and visual pizzazz to the point of overkill. But excess is not what “The Great Gatsby” is about. It is, more or less, about the irony of excess, which is a far more subtle and nuanced characteristic to capture. It is a deep novel about shallow people. This is nothing but a shallow film about shallow people.
Contact Jessica Pena at [email protected].