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.
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.
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.
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.
This isn’t even the first time he’s used a washed-up writer, beardily banging over a typewriter to get the point across.
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.”