The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Great Gatsby

And now, a review of the trailers I saw tonight prior to a screening of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

Wish You Were Here:  This Australian mystery/thriller seems to revolve around two identically scruffy-looking numbskulls, one of whom disappears while on Holiday.  At first this makes his girlfriend and the other scruffy-looking numbskull sad, but then they find out he may or may not have been involved with drugs, and begin a deadly game of cat and mouse with a nondescript late-model compact car.  This has to be more interesting than it looks, just based on the odds.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s:  Even leaving aside my general distaste for the fashion industry, showy displays of frivolous consumerism, and fabulosity in general, this whole thing seems like less of a documentary than it does a two-hour commercial for Bergdorf Goodman.  At one point, Isaac Mizrahi, who will probably eat bugs for a dollar, declaims that if your clothes are not featured at Bergdorf’s, no one will buy them, which must be bad news for all those dumb fatties at Wal-Mart.  The only way I would see this movie is if it were accompanied by a live reading of some of the more spicy passages from Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Stories We Tell:  Another documentary of extremely narrow focus, this one on the identity of actress/director Sarah Polley’s father.  I like Polley just fine, but watching her home movies isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, especially when accompanied by dreary indie rock and mawkish voice-overs about how it brought her family closer together.  This thing has won a lot of accolades, though, so what do I know?  I know that I’m not as excited about Sarah Polley’s family as Sarah Polley is, I guess.

Love is All You Need:  This appears to be an attempt to revive the acting career of Pierce Brosnan, an activity that should be strongly discouraged.  He plays a rich Irishman who accompanies a less-rich Dane to a lemon plantation in Italy where their children will be getting married.  Does the world need another movie where monied assholes trek around Europe shoving its grace and romance in our faces, when we have to go to work the next day?  Especially one starring Pierce Brosnan?  I think not, but points for being Danish.  Not enough things are Danish nowadays.

Much Ado About Nothing:  Here is all you need to know about Joss “The Joss” Whedon’s latest self-massaging vanity project. In the trailer, the credits inform us that it is “A film by Joss Whedon, based on the play”.  The play by who?  Not important, let’s see that *JOSS WHEDON* up in lights again.  Should you wish to know more than this, however, please go see the film, after which I predict you will know that Joss Whedon’s stock company consists of a bunch of actors who are not really very good at acting.

Oh, how was Gatsby?

Sometimes they say about a film that was both very expensive and very terrible that you can see the money just burning up on screen.  Never has that symbolism been more appropriately applied than with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which is particularly ironic given its overall tone, theme, and message that money cannot necessarily purchase contentment.  This one has to go down in the Book Adaptations of Novels Whose Point Was Largely Missed By the Director, second only to Roland Joffé’s The Scarlet Letter; Jay Gatsby, at the very least, bonfires money by the barrel-full in order to recreate his fleeting happiness with Daisy Buchanan, while Baz Luhrmann spends the GNP of a South Asian country for no better reason than to make a Baz Luhrmann movie.

What’s really surprising isn’t that Luhrmann manages to fuck up the book so badly (after all, what did we expect?), but how many ways and on how many levels he manages to fuck it up.  The framing device — of Nick Carraway recovering from the DTs in a sanitarium and ‘writing’ the novel at the bequest of his jolly, Wilford Brimley-ish physician — has been roundly mocked, and for good reason; it’s apparently the only way Luhrmann could think up to wedge F. Scott Fitzgerald’s exquisite prose into the movie, and it’s straight-up laughable at every turn.  Fidelity to the source only gets Luhrmann so far, as well; the plot of Gatsby is fairly minimal to begin with, and the screenplay never lets a moment go by without telegraphing upcoming events, lest our minds wander away from all the spectacle and start asking uncomfortable questions about what it all means.

What it all means, of course, has been drilled into your head from a variety of different angles if you have ever taken a literature class in the United States.  That the wicked excess of the Roaring Twenties seems, to Luhrmann’s read, to be the point of the novel rather than the means by which its cautions are delivered, may be forgivable in light of the fact that he is not an American, but what are we to make of his gob-smacked misinterpretations of class issues?  The working-class bash held at the love nest Tom Buchanan maintains for Myrtle Wilson is portrayed as downright slimy in its sweaty, nasally accented decadence, while Gatsby’s night-long ragers are so fancy, so classy, well, who are we to find them hollow or destructive?  Maybe Daisy really was sad about wasting all those expensive shirts, after all.

Much has been said about The Great Gatsby‘s anachronistic soundtrack, but that’s the least of its crimes against setting.  The movie, for all its massive cost, isn’t very pleasant to look at; East and West Egg, Daisy’s green light and Gatsby’s lonely mansion, are separated by a CGI harbor that looks less like something out of a movie, and more like something from the logo of the production company that made the movie.  There are minor anachronisms that give informed viewers a giggle — it’s unlikely enough when Nick is shown to have a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, and downright impossible that he listens to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at a party — but far worse than these piddly details is the fact that the whole movie doesn’t do much with its 1920s setting.  The shattering of American innocence after the Great War, the vast money flowing into criminal coffers as a result of Prohibition, the Jazz Age’s uncomfortable relationship with black music and culture at a time of profound racism, the easy credit and fast fortunes of the Roaring Twenties bringing great wealth to those outside the traditional class structure — these are all intrinsic, not accidental, components of The Great Gatsby, and to minimize them in service of a stylistic decision knocks the whole meaning of the story out of kilter.

There are other problems as well:  for nearly incomprehensible reasons, Luhrmann does not mention the fact that Nick and Daisy are cousins until nearly the end of the film, giving their relationship a completely different feel, especially for those who have not read the book.  And while he may be a visionary of sorts, Luhrmann is no Kubrickian perfectionist:  again in mockery of the vast sums of money spent on the film, Gatsby is filled with meaningless but distracting continuity errors and laziness from a directorial eye that cares everything about style and nothing about professionalism.  Cigarettes unlit in one shot smolder in the next; corpses breathe; martini glasses turn into wineglasses; violence plays out in unintentionally comic Zack Snyder slo-mo; and the extras playing musicians and revelers are as out of sync with the soundtrack and each other as any underpaid Italian musclemen waving swords at each other in the background of a cheap shields-and-sandals epic.  Even the fashions, which had an opportunity to replicate the bold, gorgeous patterns and styles of the 1920s, don’t resemble any actual American historical period; they come straight from the Age of Baz Luhrmann’s $10 Million Costume Budget.

Vincent Canby once said of Heaven’s Gate back in the days when critics were too sensible to pretend there was anything worthwhile about that film that it was “something very rare these days:  an unqualified disaster”.  With The Great Gatsby, only its box office redeems it; in artistic terms, only a scrap of the acting poses a saving grace.  Tobey Maguire’s Nick is the world’s most unconvincing alcoholic, his wide-eyed golly-pie act in marked contrast to his lines about being a distrustful cynic; and Carey Mulligan is given little to do with Daisy and does it.  Elizabeth Debicki does a decent job as Jordan Baker, and is compelling to look at, but with all the shady elements stripped from her character, those unfamiliar with the novel are left to wonder why they should care about her.  Amitabh Bachchan is a clever bit of stunt casting in the role of Meyer Wolfsheim, but he plays him like a Bond villain and renders him senseless unless you believe, as Luhrmann apparently does, that Gatsby is about “criticizing the often irresponsible lifestyles of wealthy people”.  Only Leonardo DiCaprio (in the title role) and Joel Edgerton (as Tom Buchanan) put in solid performances — DiCaprio, in fact, is downright terrific, delivering one of his finest performances ever, and the scenes between him and Edgerton are the only ones that cut to the heart of the brutal contempt between New and Old Money that dominates the novel and its battle between East and West Egg.

But it’s not enough, it’s never enough, particularly in a film where the two aren’t on screen together for much of the time, and when they do, Tom practically sprouts horns and tries to puncture Jay’s halo.  Nothing will stop the movie from making a mountain of cash — it’s made close to $70 million in its first week even though its title character cannot fly or shoot lasers — but even charitably, by any critical measure, as a film and as an adaptation of a great novel it’s a huge, expensive failure. DiCaprio’s performance aside, its primary accomplishment is to make you want to read Fitzgerald’s novel, and wonder how the filmmakers could have gotten it all so wrong.

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