The Spazz Age

Baz Luhrmann Glitter-Bombs Fitzgerald in the Explosively Entertaining Gatsby

The Spazz Age

THE GREAT GATSBY Borne back ceaselessly into the past on a thumping hiphop beat.

A gaudy digital 3-D adaptation of The Great Gatsby with a soundtrack by Jay-Z could easily be the punch line to a million bad jokes about the sad state of modern American culture. But then, The Great Gatsby was in its own way the punch line to the sad state of American culture in the 1920s, which means Baz Luhrmann's hundred-million-dollar-plus adaptation of the book makes a little more sense. And at least every goddamned red cent that Luhrmann spent is on-screen here—Gatsby's opulent parties that open the picture are as over-the-top and impossibly extravagant as you'd expect, since they're directed by the guy who brought you Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann uses the 3-D to its utmost, too, adding depth and enlivening every visual detail; this is one of those rare experiences where it's worth shelling out the extra cash for the 3-D version.)

The basics of the book are all here. Tobey Maguire stars as the creepy Nick Carraway, the passive voyeur who lives to tell the tale. "Nicky, I know you like to watch," someone tells Carraway early in Gatsby, and Maguire's twisted smile in response perfectly brings out the innate not-rightness of someone who's happy to set his married cousin up with his enigmatic wealthy neighbor without much moral introspection whatsoever. Carraway inserts himself into the relationship of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, as insanely watchable as ever) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, more about him later) with aplomb. And Gatsby needs Carraway there, too, as a sounding board or maybe just as a witness. Daisy's husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton, exquisitely all raw nerves), isn't quite dumb enough to not notice that something's going on. As in the book, terrible things happen.

The one thing that Luhrmann instinctually understands is that The Great Gatsby is packed with creepiness. Carraway leers on the outside, looking in. Gatsby treats Daisy like a human doll, and his enormous mansion is nothing so much as a gigantic time machine with which he plans to remake the universe in his own image. Tom toys with the lives of the poor like a petulant, horny Greek god. And the modern American God is in there, too, represented as a pair of eyes on an abandoned billboard. "God sees everything," we are told a few times by characters lost in clouds of their own boozy breath. That's because God is creepy. And then you turn around and see a theater full of people wearing cheap sunglasses staring raptly at a screen, sometimes reaching their hands out to touch the three-dimensional images that don't really exist in front of them, like Gatsby standing on a pier trying to capture a distant green light in his hand, and Luhrmann's obvious point grabs you by the nose and screams in your ear. This is America. We're all creeps.

Gatsby is not a subtle movie—you get the sense that Luhrmann would spit and screech and hide behind his black velour cape if you ever even mentioned the word "subtle" in his presence—but it's not a bad movie, either. If you resign yourself to the inevitable fact that not even half of the book's intricacies survive the adaptation, you can relax and enjoy what did make it to the screen. And there's a lot to enjoy.

Specifically, you can bask in the delight that is Leonardo DiCaprio, who, with the one-two punch of his villainous turn in Django Unchained and his self-aware, puffed-up performance as Gatsby, is doing the best work of his career right now. The triad of DiCaprio, Maguire, and Mulligan make the first time their characters are all under one roof—the world's most uncasual casual tea party—into a brilliant comedic scene. Later, the tension erupts in a most satisfying manner as Gatsby (in a silly but fabulous powder-pink suit) and Tom go at each other like preening boys on a playground. It's less an argument about a love triangle and more a pissing contest between old money versus new. These are smart performances that encourage you to forgive the occasional mistake, like Luhrmann's unfortunate failure to script Daisy out to a full three dimensions, or a stupid effect where words swirl around the screen as Carraway bangs on his typewriter, or a severely diminished supporting cast.

Some will go see The Great Gatsby just so they can complain about it. I'm sure someone will tear the soundtrack to shreds, even though it's not overdone at all—a few Jay-Z couplets tossed in here and there to accentuate the excess, a zippy little "Crazy in Love" cover thrown on top of a scene for a lightening effect—and scores of Gatsby purists are doubtlessly squirming in anticipation of pulling the movie apart to demonstrate their love of the text. But Shakespeare is reinvented on a daily basis all over the world; surely Fitzgerald's sturdy little book can withstand the weight of a gilded elephant dancing around on it for a while? It is, after all, a hell of a show. recommended

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Comments (21) RSS

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I had no interest in seeing Gatsby until I read this review.
Posted by Clayton on May 12, 2013 at 11:28 AM · Report this

Rich folk are fuckin' with ya.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on May 12, 2013 at 11:40 AM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 3
I loved the over-the-top weirdness that was Moulin Rouge, including all the odd use of music. So I very much expect Gatsby to stray from the source material, and some odd music choices wouldn't surprise me either.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing this movie.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on May 12, 2013 at 12:29 PM · Report this
AmyC 4
@3 - exactly how I feel. Also, I'd watch Carey Mulligan clip her toenails for two hours, so I'm pretty sure I'll enjoy the hell out of Gatsby, whatever it's flaws, simply for her presence in it.
Posted by AmyC on May 12, 2013 at 1:12 PM · Report this
Cornichon 5
Trouble is, Luhrmann seems to think Fitzgerald's title, "Great Gatsby," to mean, literally, great. As in magnificent. But he meant it ironically: Gatsby is a truly horrible and morally corrupt man who uses his charm for criminal ends.
Posted by Cornichon on May 12, 2013 at 1:32 PM · Report this
my favorite jab that none of the college kids sitting around me seemed to get was when Daisy slipped a pen into Buchannan's pocket in the party scene "in case you need to write down any phone numbers." aka, "whatever, I know you fuck other people. why don't you go chase that for a bit and leave me to my flirtation." I laughed.
Posted by drivel on May 12, 2013 at 1:46 PM · Report this
To be fair, Daisy wasn't a very exceptional lady. It's what Gatsby saw in her that makes all the difference.
Posted by OOF POOF on May 12, 2013 at 2:37 PM · Report this
Saw it yesterday and am completely with you on this one, Paul.
Posted by Christopher Frizzelle on May 12, 2013 at 3:34 PM · Report this
zivilisierter Wurm 9
I don't think adaptations should necessarily be slavish in dedication to the source material, the decision to have Nick narrating from a mental institution was baffling to me. And even from a Jay-Z fan, the score was super distracting. It's obvious the director wanted this movie to be a commentary on contemporary culture, but the movie sits awkwardly in two worlds.

I honestly wish Luhrmann had pulled a Romeo + Juliet and simply set the story in 2007 America, before the crash. The Great Gatsby was written in 1925, less than 5 years before the Gilded Age imploded in financial ruin. The odes to modern culture would have been less jarring, and you would hardly need to change the story. Uber-class of idle rich, fiddling while Rome burns? Backdrop of popular discontent and spiritual directionlessness? Fitzgerald's book was meant as a critique of the relentless pursuit of the "American Dream", and you know what they say about history repeating itself.
Posted by zivilisierter Wurm on May 12, 2013 at 3:46 PM · Report this

WOW, great review!!! I do not recall a film, book, or theater review engaging me or being quite so fair and thorough as this.

A truly excellent review!
Posted by scratchmaster joe on May 12, 2013 at 4:30 PM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 11
Good to see Paul Constant lighten up a little and enjoy a movie. It's a fair homage to Roger Ebert.
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on May 12, 2013 at 5:10 PM · Report this
Now I really want to see this, too. Good one, Paul Constant!

It doesn't sound like "Gatsby" will replace "Strictly Ballroom" in my heart, but I'm looking forward to giving it a try.
Posted by phony_handle on May 12, 2013 at 6:51 PM · Report this
Just Jeff 13
Well now here is a first class review. Do I still miss Lindy? YES, but this is an improvement that doesn't make me miss her less, but makes me appreciate you more.
Posted by Just Jeff on May 12, 2013 at 9:11 PM · Report this
I agree with this review. I can see why a lot of critics didn't like this adaptation, but I thought it was kind of fabulous. The first two acts were great fun to watch and the third act really got to me -- I actually misted up a bit at the end. I also don't understand what else critics expected, coming from Luhrmann. If you've hated all his previous work and sit through this with your arms crossed, waiting to be won over, you'll probably be disappointed.
Posted by Amanda on May 13, 2013 at 12:16 AM · Report this
@1: Ditto!
Posted by Guest Author on May 13, 2013 at 1:43 AM · Report this
But if I hated Moulin Rouge, I will hate this movie, right?

Because I hated Moulin Rouge.
Posted by YTAH on May 13, 2013 at 4:11 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 17
Enjoy this Summer hit...'cause Star Trek Into The Darkness looks like it's going to make Star Trek V look positively riveting
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on May 13, 2013 at 7:35 AM · Report this
Dougsf 18
I know this film will appeal to a certain amount of people, but I'm guessing since I hated his version of Romeo & Juliet — and honestly, don't love the book — I won't like either.

Still, that was a great review, Paul.
Posted by Dougsf on May 13, 2013 at 12:35 PM · Report this
seandr 19
@5: Pfffft. The title is meant both literally and ironically.

The irony is Gatsby was not the entitled WASP with a trust fund that he tried to pass himself off as. He was a southern hick who made his fortune as a bootlegger. His crime, if any, was being a member of the wrong class.

And yet the man pulled himself out of poverty, made piles of money, and loved more truly and deeply than anyone in the book, ultimately giving his life for that love.
Posted by seandr on May 14, 2013 at 9:11 PM · Report this
@ 16: Yes, I completely agree with you there. I got free tickets to see Moulin Rouge in downtown Seattle when it first came out and all I can say is, "Thank God, I didn't shell out any money for it" What a giant, steaming pile of crap. My two friends loved it and apparently so did every single other person in the theater. I had to be restrained from throwing something at the screen, I hated it that much!

And Romeo+Juliet... meh.... it would have been good if some of those younger actors had actually understood the text before they filmed the movie. Painful to watch.
Posted by DrummerGrrl on May 15, 2013 at 1:00 AM · Report this
I loved his Romeo + Juliet, and saying "those younger actors" makes you sound a bit crotchety.
Posted by Amanda on May 16, 2013 at 8:58 AM · Report this

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