The Great Gatsby
Based on possibly the most Cliffsnotes-ed book of all time, The Great Gatsby faces the same dilemma that any adaptation of a classic does – everything you need to make it good is right there in the original, but the original is already so important that just making it ‘good’ isn’t enough. You have to bring enough to the table that people will sit through a story that they already know by heart without wondering why you’re wasting their time by telling it to them again. Anyone who is familiar with Baz Luhrmann’s work knows that he is definitely capable of of bringing his own style to The Great Gatsby and most of those people are terrified of what that means.
All of those people were right. The Great Gatsby is a story that takes place in New York during the roaring 20’s, so Luhrmann’s glitzy, crowded style seems like it could make sense on paper – and that’s really as far as it ever should’ve been taken. In a “top 5 directors who should do The Great Gatsbyâ€ list, he’d make a great number 4 that would spark a lot of interesting discussion. As “the actual director who did The Great Gatsbyâ€ Luhrmann does the annoyingly overwrought job anyone could have guessed he would.
Again, this isn’t to say that The Great Gatsby (the movie) is terrible. It for the most part faithfully tells the story of The Great Gatsby (the book). So it’s ok. It just doesn’t add anything or change anything or make any statement at all that isn’t purely aesthetic. It’s upsetting in the way that seeing Axl Rose do a karaoke version of Stairway to Heaven would be. He has the range and gets all the words right but it’s really just a more annoying, flamboyant version of something you already know.
The “I’d rather watch someone fail trying to do something newâ€ argument is a little played out. The internet is a thing now so not only are we a race that’s been telling stories for thousands upon thousands of years, but now you can access it all from instantly home and see how unoriginal we really are. So I think it’s important to point out once more that this isn’t just an adaptation of well-known story, it’s an adaptation of a story that almost everyone has read and studied in its current incarnation. It’s in modern language and it takes place less than a hundred years ago. We’re not talking about Beowulf here.
Doing something new is pretty important here. I’d rather see a mediocre version of The Great Gatsby that takes place on a moon colony in the distant future than a mediocre version that takes place exactly where the original does. Or I’d rather see a new take on one of the characters. Or a theme that the novel only touches on expanded. And if you aren’t going to change anything significant about the book, please do the original story really well. Baz Luhrmann is so obsessed with making things visually stunning and mixing Jay-Z into the soundtrack that the story is pretty much relegated to a secondary role. The cast is filled with amazing actors that never get to actually act because there’s edgy techo music playing while the camera cuts all over the place during any scene that actually carries any weight. On top of that the one actor who specifically does a bad job is Tobey Maguire, who is kind of playing an important role.
The first thing any filmmaker should think about when they adapt something like The Great Gatsby is how they’re going to handle Nick Carraway. It’s the single most difficult part to adapt. It’s also the absolute worst part of Luhrmann’s version, because that’s what happens when inept people are faced with difficult tasks. The only real decision he makes about the character, or about the story in general, is to have Nick telling the story from a mental hospital. It’s still a ton of voice-over narration from a character whose job is basically just to watch everything happen and comment on it, only now we know that he becomes crazy later on. You’ll notice that Nick being mentally ill in the far future does nothing to help tell the story that’s happening right now on-screen. The end result is what almost any adaptation of The Great Gatsby will always suffer from – a bunch of things happen and then one of the people that just saw them happen talks about how it just happened.
I really dislike Baz Luhrmann, which is probably obvious by now. Even at his best he’s a cotton candy, visual-only director and this is not him at his best. I still don’t even know if calling The Great Gatsby a waste of time is fair. I’ve already said it’s an ok movie. I just don’t know what purpose it could possibly serve. If you somehow aren’t familiar with the story already, there is absolutely nothing here that gives you any reason to watch this movie instead of read the book, or even to watch this movie instead of watching another movie. For everyone else, I just don’t see what happens in this movie that would make you feel rewarded. You could save ten dollars and have the same experience by re-reading the book while being distracted by loud, remixed pop-songs. Or save zero dollars and go see Pain & Gain – they’re the exact same quality, but one is from a director that knows what he is.