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Baz Luhrmann Tries (And Fails) To Defend The Indefensible Flaw In His Adaptation Of The Great Gatsby

By Joanna Robinson | Miscellaneous | May 13, 2013 | Comments ()


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I saw (and, for the most part loved) Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby this weekend. As did a lot of people. The movie made $51 million opening weekend and, by Tuesday, The Great Gatsby should surpass Moulin Rouge as Baz Luhrmann's highest grossing film of all time ($57 million). The movie is not without its faults, however, and the most egregious issue is not one we saw coming. People have been pre-judging the film for months now picking at the 3-D design and bemoaning the modern soundtrack. So let me be clear, those issues are not my issues. I already purchased the soundtrack and have worn out Coco O.'s track listening to it on repeat. And 3-D? That's irritating but easily avoided. I saw both Gatsby and Iron Man in 2-D.

No the problem with Gatsby is one that Luhrmann wisely kept out of the marketing and safely tucked under his boater. The only hint we had was one shot in the trailer of a snow encrusted building a morose Tobey Maguire staring out of a window.
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Yes Nick Carraway, our forthright narrator, is telling the story of how he met Gatsby as part of some sort of writing therapy while he tries to recover from his "morbid alcoholism." This entire frame narrative (one of the trickiest and most reviled devices in film), the fictional Perkins Asylum and its staff are invented, out of whole cloth, by Luhrmann. So the lines of famous description, Fitzgerald's lovely, flowery text, are all part of Carraway's therapy. And that's just terrible. It's bone-numbingly stupid. Even worse, the letters of the text itself occasionally float up onto the screen just to ensure we, the viewer, don't miss a single, solitary allusion or symbol.

You can you accuse me of fussily picking nits, if you like. An adaptation is meant to be loose! The director and screenwriter should be able to change it up if they like. Well exactly. EXACTLY. This stupid frame narration smacks of Luhrmann being unable to let go of the text and let his visuals tell the story. In his excellent review of the film, Dan Carlson wrote "The reliance on Nick's narration isn't just a nod to the book, but a crutch that often renders the film too basic. Prose paints a picture, but so does film, and we rarely need both in tandem." The near-constant Maguire-ing not only speaks to Luhrmann's underestimation of us the viewer, but a lack of faith in the ability of his actors to, well, act. And that's not a concern you should have when you cast Leonardo DiCaprio in any role. Let me see him be Gatsby. Your damn description is getting in the way.
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When Baz reels back and slows down and just lets the actors play their parts, the movie is enchanting. And Luhrmann seems to understand that. He says "The noise, the razzle dazzle, it's in the book. But [the whole novel] strips down to five people in a room going, 'You loved him? But I thought you loved me.' It's absolutely pure, simple five-handed drama." That's right, Baz. That's right. And my beef here isn't even with Maguire himself who is up to the challenge of Nick Carraway. At least the Nick Carraway of the book.
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But this is how Luhrmann attempts to defend the indefensible in a recent interview with "The Huffington Post"

The biggest character transformation, however, is the one visited on Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway. In the novel, it's never precisely clear how or why Carraway is telling us all this. And while that's perfectly fine for a book, a film demands greater specificity. If words are going to be said, or displayed on a screen, someone has to be saying them, and that person has to be in some concrete location for some concrete reason.

"We're not going to be able to use much of Fitzgerald's language unless we're actually able to see him writing the book," Luhrmann said he remembered thinking. "Who could he be writing the book with?"

POPPYCOCK AND BALDERDASH. Riddle me this, Luhrmann, did we need to see Morgan Freeman's Red scratching out The Shawshank Redemption in a beachfront bar in Zihuatanejo? Would Sunset Boulevard or American Beauty have been improved by scenes of a be-winged Joe Gillis or Lester Burnham scribbling their stories from the other side? And the last thing we needed was shots of Columbus typing up his adventures in Zombieland with a half naked Wichita by his si-strike that. I would have been okay with that. The point, again, Baz, is that the narration can stand on its own. We can't fault Luhrmann for wanting to use Fitzgerald's famous text. What would the story be without "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"? But I do bregrudge every second spent in that fictional Perkins Asylum. With a groaning runtime of two hours and 13 minutes, Luhrmann did not have a moment to spare.

Of course, this isn't the first time Luhrmann has over-explained his text to the viewer. Perhaps, understandably so in Romeo + Juliet. Shakespeare ain't always easy, y'all.
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This isn't even the first time he's used a washed-up writer, beardily banging over a typewriter to get the point across.
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And if the film had been a colossal artistic failure, I wouldn't care. But all the occasional greatness of Luhrmann's Gatsby makes me want to shake him and say "You can't repeat the past Baz." "Of course you can, old sport," he'd reply. "Of course you can."

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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • DrR

    A lot of critics (and Luhrmann) are missing the point of Nick's narration. Nick is unreliable, more so than many first person narrators. So when he tells us he has only been drunk twice, or that he doesn't judge people, we have to take it with a huge grain of salt. And most "evidence" of what happens comes second hand, so when Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy was driving the car, we shouldn't necessarily believe him. So if you're going to stick Nick in an insane asylum, be sure to call into question the whole telling. Which Luhrmann fails to do.

  • Guest

    God I so wish I could give a rat's ass.

  • Some Guy

    Anyone notice how in the header pic it seems as if Tobey is staring at DiCaprio through his glasses, as opposed to whatever is off frame to the left that seems to be drawing in Leo and Baz?

    It's kinda creepy. Tobey's kinda creepy.

  • $27019454

    And he has that Jan Brady adenoidal voice. Ick.

  • googergieger

    Haven't seen the movie myself, but the second I want to see something shit, I'll let you know what I think of it.

  • Mitchell Hundred

    My problem with Romeo + Juliet wasn't so much the overt labeling of the characters as the choice of script. It really pissed me off that the screenwriter was too lazy to update the dialogue, and I can't buy the notion that modern street gangs would talk like that (they sure as hell didn't in West Side Story). Although I can't speak to any thematic parallels with other works, since that's the only one of his movies that I've seen.

  • Yossarian

    5/5 to you as well. The deadpan delivery was masterful.

  • Mitchell Hundred

    I think we're all deadpan on here. It is the Internet, after all.

  • Lauren_Lauren

    Wow. Apparently holding your glasses to your face on a wee stick is the ponciest way to watch something in 3D. God dammit, this thing cost a fortune.

    *throws 3D monocle in the trash*

  • $27019454

    It's a lorgnette. I have no idea how I know that.

  • JoannaRobinson

    It's a lyric from Carousel. No? Just me?

  • $27019454

    Rebecca. The wretched bitch Mrs Van Hopper uses it to check out the people in the cafe.

  • Az

    Whatever, I LOVED it

  • rn3

    wait, they made nick an alcoholic? correct me if i'm wrong, but in the book isn't he very specifically NOT a big drinker? There's the scene where he accompanies Tom and Myrtle into Manhattan, and he helps to explain the absurdity of the situation by claiming, "i have been drunk only two times in my life, and this was the second" or something like that. I mean, I get the demise of youth and naivety and all that as a theme, which I *guess* could be applied to a staunch stance on drinking? But even that's a stretch.

  • yocean

    Ok, yes this really bothered me and expressed exactly what i didn't like about the film. BUT WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT GUTTING OF JORDAN AND NICK'S RELATIONSHIP?!!! Or Daisy's daughter? Those were important character moments that would have done way more service to telling this story than time spent explaining and going back repeatedly to the sanatorium therapy framing device that amounted to nothing!!!! I was hoping maybe the therapist was working with police to make him write on that memory so they can pin down Meyer Wolfsheim or something...eh, INTERSTING AND CONSEQUENTIAL? NO? IT WAS JUST HIS THERAPY AND WE DIDN'T EVEN SEE HIM GETTING BETTER OR ANYTHING? GAHHHHHHHHHHHH!

  • Agreed. The most telling thing about Daisy as a person is when she says the best thing her daughter could be is a "pretty little fool." Everything you need to know about Daisy right there.

  • sars

    She does from what I remember- when she is recounting to Nick about when she first found out she's had a daughter.

  • lowercase_ryan

    This is great and all, but I'm stealing "picking nits",

    Thanks.

  • Yossarian

    You don't need to steal, it's in the public domain.

  • DarthCorleone

    It'd be funny if that "It was one of those rare smiles..." pics was actually a still from the film.

  • Yossarian

    In the context of Joanna's criticism it was pretty hilarious.

  • BendinIntheWind

    "Hmmm, you wear your 3D glasses over your ears? How gauche."

  • Jezzer

    Told you Baz Luhrmann sucks. :3

  • Washington Irving

    1/5 for reading comprehension. 5/5 for trolling.

  • Anna von Beav

    Awwww, sick burn, JEZZER. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it!

    >:(

  • Mrs. Julien

    Luhrmann does so love a framing device.

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