The sum effect of watching Baz Luhrmann’s disastrous 3-D adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is like reading a CliffsNotes summary while listening to Jay-Z—you get the rough idea of what Fitzgerald was aiming at in his tale of Jazz Age excess and hopeless romantic longing, but you lose the nuance and rich exuberance which made his work great and enduring, and you’re distracted by music completely incongruous to the material.
The plot of “The Great Gatsby” will be familiar to many who first encountered Fitzgerald’s refreshingly clean prose as high school juniors or seniors after being beaten into submission by the dense verbosity of “Great Expectations,” “Silas Marner” and “Billy Budd.”
It’s the story of James Gatz—aka Gatsby, first name Jay—who grew up penniless in the Midwest, returned a hero from the Great War and then settled on Long Island and made a fortune through dubious means in the Prohibition era of racketeering and bootlegged whisky.
The first thing Luhrmann and company get wrong is a framing device which finds narrator Nick Carraway confined to a sanatorium in the throes of alcoholic withdrawal of the kind that would debilitate Fitzgerald with increasing frequency during the course of his literary career and eventually kill him, in 1940, at age 44.
But though semi-autobiographical (as was Gatsby himself), it’s far too easy and reductive to position Nick as a stand-in for Fitzgerald the man, just as it’s absurd to conceive of Jake Barnes as the literary embodiment of Hemingway.
Everyone drank too much back then, we’re told in voiceover, as digital snow flies at the camera lens (a requirement these days for any film shot in 3-D). It’s as if Luhrmann is apologizing for the opulent debauchery to follow, although based on his oeuvre to date—from the Shakespeare-meets-MTV excess of “Romeo + Juliet” to the unabashed grandiosity of “Australia” (the Down Under equivalent of David O. Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind,” had he re-titled it “America”)—it would seem that it is precisely the endless parties and brazenness of flapper girls swilling bathtub gin that appealed to him.
Diehard Shakespeareans found much to cringe at in the gangland romance of “Romeo + Juliet”—a poor man’s “West Side Story” masquerading as the genuine article—but at least it represented a sincere attempt to modernize a canonical classic into the pop youth lexicon.
Luhrmann’s stab at revising “Gatsby” with a hip-hop soundtrack while still retaining the fashions and cultural stereotypes of the Roaring ’20s is a colossal cop-out, representing a basic misunderstanding of the social mores that Fitzgerald both exaggerated and immortalized.
At its core, “The Great Gatsby” is a love story, and a fairly simple one at that, with Gatsby pining for Daisy Buchanan, his wartime love and the second cousin of Nick and husband of Tom Buchanan, a hulking former Yale football star of privileged wealth.
Luhrmann, the son of a ballroom dance instructor, plays up the romantic aspects of Fitzgerald’s story, with his former Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, assuming the role of the enigmatic Gatsby, the man of mystery whose profiteering motives turn out to be as simple as Clyde Griffiths’ are in Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” published in 1925, the same year as “Gatsby,” and featuring a hero just as obsessed as James Gatz is with seeking social status to obtain an unobtainable woman.
DiCaprio—admirably debonair in a tuxedo, though not close to his relative contemporary George Clooney, let alone the suave sophistication of the master, Cary Grant—makes a respectable Gatsby, although in all honesty, it’s an impossible part. Even Robert Redford, at a point in his career when he could seemingly do no wrong, couldn’t do the role justice in Jack Clayton’s sterile 1974 adaptation.
The problem is that Gatsby is a masculine ideal later revealed to be a heroic fraud—a figment of Nick’s imagination in his younger and more vulnerable years who turns out to be nothing but a man, subject to the same whims and fancies as Tom Buchanan, who cuckolds blue collar mechanic George Wilson.
Nick Carraway is the key to the novel, the wry voice of reason whose initial adoration of Jay Gatsby is displaced by disillusionment and finally nostalgic admiration. And as Nick, Tobey Maguire delivers an excruciatingly bad performance, one of the worst in modern history by an A-list actor.
If Nick were truly the booze hound that Luhrmann and Maguire make him out to be in the framing device, then surely he would have quickly overcome the wide-eyed innocence with which Maguire attends every scene, as if he were playing in exaggerated caricature the remaining fragments from the lost 1926 silent film version.
But even more insurmountable than the jumbo-sized egg laid by Maguire is the haphazard frenzy of Luhrmann’s mise-en-scène, which imagines the elaborate parties at Gatbsy’s West Egg mansion as something akin to a nightclub rager.
Despite such preposterous flourishes as the sight of young African-Americans pulling up alongside Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce in a souped-up roadster while blasting hip-hop, Luhrmann is incapable of handling the straightforward eyeline cuts of traditional dialogue scenes, which form the basis of most of Fitzgerald’s narrative.
Take the lunch encounter when Nick meets Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfshiem (inexplicably played by Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan). Luhrmann’s camera is all over the place, seemingly distracted by the exotic dancers shimmying at the backroom speakeasy, and in its frantic haste completely misses the dramatic crux of the scene.
Although in the end, there remains a saving female grace in the male-centric world of polo and highballs.
It comes not in Carey Mulligan—who fares little better than Mia Farrow did in the role of idealized heroine Daisy Buchanan—but in the Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, who plays scratch golfer and aloof socialite Jordan Baker, the sort-of girlfriend of Nick. Angular and athletic, like Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby,” she alone captures the essence of an era that Luhrmann ineptly hacks at.
And as futile as it may seem, because of the heretofore unknown Debicki, I believe in the green light, the orgastic future of cinema that will one day produce a great “Gatsby.”
“The Great Gatsby” is currently playing at the Majestic 10 in Williston, Essex Cinemas in Essex Junction, the Roxy in Burlington and the Palace 9 in South Burlington.