REVIEW: Did Baz Luhrmann forget what The Great Gatsby was about or did I?

I get the feeling most people view The Great Gatsby, of which they remember the title, the author, a few lines, and not much else, through the lens of their childhood, something Important, in black and white, like an old photograph. Thus it’s jarring to see it brought to life looking like someone put a rainstick, a disco ball, some tinsel, three of your tacky aunt Edna’s animal-print shawls, and the Chrysler Building into that machine from The Fly. And in 3D, no less! With dub-step, and Black Eyed Peas songs! (*hikes flapper skirt above knees, does the Charleston while background dancers twirl spiral-patterned umbrellas*)

The wild thing about The Great Gatsby is that the sacrilege is the best part. It takes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mannered, elegant prose and turns it into a world where it’s always raining ticker tape and tinsel and confetti and shit, and no one notices because they’re too busy laughing and screaming and dancing and billowing billowing billowing about the room while seductive negroes play the trumpet. Imagine stumbling through a menagerie of art deco grotesques like Hunter Thompson inside Circus Circus in the depths of an ether binge and you won’t be far off. Hey, it’s supposed to be about decadence, right? And who does decadence better than Baz freakin’ Luhrmann? Excess tried to hang with Baz one day and spent the entire afternoon puking rainbows into the chocolate fountain.

Excess is exactly what I want from a Baz Lurhmann movie about the 20s – GATSBY 3D: THE JAZZENING – and the fact that he can keep raising the bar on his own ridiculousness is an impressive feat. Every square yard of ornate screen space looks like it took a week and ten sparrows with hot glue guns to put together. I spent the first 40 minutes of the movie laughing almost nonstop. I don’t know if I was laughing with or laughing at, but I’m not sure that’s an important distinction anyway. Though I probably could’ve done without Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) narrating the movie through voiceover the way he narrates the book, or at the very least, without the actual text of his words flying at my face like spinning newspapers. You can almost hear someone asking “but how can we bring these beautiful words to life?” With Baz Lurhmann happily tossing and catching his embossed cane, “M’yeah, simple, old sport! By bringing the actual words to life!” (Cut to text flying at your face in 3d).

When Carraway says he’s “within and without” we see the words “within and without” helpfully fly towards us like Howard Hughes in a biplane.

Which leads me to my next question: was Nick Carraway actually within and without? It seems like he’s mostly without, watching all the action excitedly from behind a tree trunk while he tugs on his little pecker. We begin with him narrating the story from a sanitarium, where he’s since been committed, supposedly because he roared SO HARD during the 20s. But then when we flash back there, he really doesn’t do much besides stare at everyone else like a neutered little freak while they drink and bedazzle and fornicate. There’s a girl golfer there, Jordan Baker, played Elizabeth Debicki, who I could’ve sworn was Carraway’s girlfriend in the book, but in the movie is just always hanging around the other characters for no apparent reason while Tobey spies on everyone like Lord Varys. I never understood before why Ernest Hemingway, whose prose style I always found slightly affected and overwrought compared to Fitzgerald’s, thought Fitzgerald was such a pussy. As Carraway’s depicted in the movie, I can finally see why. Carraway is writer as observer-eunuch, the antithesis of Hemingway’s phallus-brandishing lion killer.

All of which makes the film slightly difficult to review, once the pizzazz of the visuals and the hilarity of Fergie singing “A little party never killed nobody” while revelers do the Charleston in confetti choked indoor fountains at the beginning wears off. I can’t say for certain whether Baz Luhrmann didn’t know what this book was really about, or if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnificent prose distracted me from what it was about. To be fair to Luhrmann, it is a bit odd that I could quote the book but retained little of the actual plot.

I remembered The Great Gatsby more as a commentary on the surreal feeling of the period between WWI and the stock market crash – kind of analogous to the mortgage bubble period pre-Lehman Brothers, come to think of it, so wonderfully evoked in Queen of Versailles – where everyone was living on borrowed time and money. But apparently it was also this love story? About how Gatsby built himself up from a poor kid from the midwest into the most famous Long Island mansion owner on the New York social scene (all by selling hooch – quelle scandal!)? All so he could win the love of a debutante he met before he went off to war?

In Luhrmann’s hands, Gatsby seems less like an avatar for American striving than he does your basic male love story protagonist: a poor kid who wants to f*ck a rich girl. Even though she kind of sucks. Gatsby could be Jack from Titanic or the drover from Australia, or any Luhrmann protagonist, and especially seems like a character that could’ve been written by Josh Schwartz. It sucks all the specificity out of the wonderfully ridiculous early scenes and turns it into a love triangle drama that’s soooooooo dulllll. Two rich guys fight over Carey Mulligan, who is pretty enough, but I sure hope this is the last movie where she plays a character who emotes a lot without conveying much beyond WAAAH EMOTIONZ R HARRRDD. I know she’s supposed to be shallow, as they all are, but it sure feels as if the movie is asking us to care about how these straight ppl problems play out, when I couldn’t really give a flying shirt.

I spent the last five minutes hoping against hope that they wouldn’t animate the text of the “boats against the current” conclusion, to no avail, my green light shattered.

(*having fallen asleep from boredom, wakes up covered in confetti, lapel carnation now sadly wilted*)

Huh? Oh, right.


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