Last night I wet to a premier of Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby (2013) and I have to tell you, I have a huge problem with it. Assuming that you are all familiar with Fitzgerald’s classic and very complex novel of bad timing, prohibition, new money and lost love in the Jazz era I will not go into the details, divulging the plot for you, but rather focus at the way the story was adapted for the big screen.
Leonardo di Caprio is at the center of the story as he portraits the enigmatic figure of young magnate Jay Gatsby; Carey Mulligan stars as Daisy Buchanan, the object of his desire; Tobey Maguire as Daisy’s cousin, the outsider-insider (and most celebrated) narrator of the story; Joel Edgerton as Tom, Daisy’s husband, Isla Fisher as Myrtle, Tom’s mistress and Jason Clarke as Wilson, Myrtle’s husband. First of, the casting is all wrong. Leonardo, however, must be excluded from the bunch for he does a very good job at portraying Gatsby, the invisible center of the extravagant parties, and he just might be the only plausible casting. Definitely better than Redford. As for the rest of the cast, Maguire in particular, it was a mishit.
When it comes to literary adaptations, part of the fascination generally lies in seeing how the director has read the source material, and will he perhaps add some new interpretation to it. With Luhrmann we know exactly where we stand, however, I am not quite sure Luhrman knows where he stands with Fitzgerald. And this is the main problem of the film. As Peter Bradshaw has noted: “Having watched this fantastically unthinking and heavy-handed adaptation…I feel the only way to make it less subtle would be to let Michael Bay direct it.” Touché. I wish I had written this sentence.
The first mistake is the narrative-framing device they have chosen. In the book, Nick has gone home to the Midwest after a bruising time in New York and everything he tells us of Gatsby and Daisy is a wonderstruck recollection. In this adaptation, Luhrmann and his frequent collaborator, the screenwriter Craig Pearce, have turned Nick into an alcoholic who is seeking out help at a sanatorium (not how the story goes in the book). With the aid of his doctor, who suggested he should let everything out through the words written on paper, Nick pulls himself up and with hardly any sleep, puts together the entire text of “The Great Gatsby” signing his name on the manuscript. Nick Caraway thus becomes Fitzgerald. One comes to think that the manuscript for next film adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita will be written by none other than Humbert Humbert. This gesture – of literalizing Fitzgerald’s conceit that Nick is the author – was literally unnecessary for we already accepted his role of the (flat and placid) narrator.
The second mistake is the ending. They actually took the very last sentence of the book and literally spelled it out for us on the screen from some kind of a screen alphabet soup. This gives a feel that the director and his screenwriter had created an entire film on the basis of a bullet-point board prepared by a salesperson – let’s put everything into the mix so we can sell it better. The Great Gatsby is a overly complicated, chaotic mishmash of bits and pieces: sentence here, sentence there, a bit of Jay Z, a bit of Charleston, a bit of headache-inciting zoom, quite a bit of CGI and plentiful of 3D and we have ourselves a Gatsby for 21st century audience. It was insulting.
Personally, I do not mind the choice in music, but what I do mind is the mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic sound especially when it comes to the parties Gatsby was hosting. These parties became the vivid 1920s backdrop of the film, however, the atmosphere could not be sensed once you have added one layer of sound on top of another layer of sound on top of another. Clustered together they lead into a cacophony, and not the good kind. Having Jay Z over the music playing at Gatsby’s party simply does not work for me albeit Jay Z’s music is audacious and exhilarating. For instance, in the rare moments when Luhrmann gathers the strength to choose one over the other it becomes undeniably lively and vivid. Contrasting the New York of the 1920s with the New York now is so refreshing for he gives us the experience of traveling without moving. Think time travel.
Speaking of the things I like. The only moment I actually liked was somewhere halfway through the film – the reunion of Jay and Daisy over at Nick’s house. This was a promising scene, full of hope that the worst is finally behind us and that Luhrmann will shift his focus from camera zooms to characters whose stories he is suppose to convey. But no, the cottage scene was just a brief interlude and before you know it you are right back where you started, in a digital New York accompanied by a flat steadfast face of Toby Maguire who just refuses to act.
Negative point: When Gatsby finally reveals himself to Nick at one of his parties for Daisy, he is accompanied with fireworks and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a gimmick Luhrmann has clearly taken from the opening of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, that backfired – a laughable and clearly a very misjudged moment.
Bonus point: Soundtrack. Most notably, Lana del Ray’s Young and Beautiful, Florence and the Machine’s Over the Love, and Filter’s Happy Together.
Also, loved Leonardo in the black male swimsuit.
Text written by: Monika Ponjavic
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