Stop The Movie, Gatsby. I Want to Get Off.
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was staring across plates of eggs and waffles at my husband. Beyond the window, tulips danced in the deceptively sunny courtyard. May in Chicago doesn't mean the start of summer anymore. As I picked at my food, one name crossed my mind, over and over. Tobey Maguire. How could they do it? How could they choose this strange man whose only emotion appears to be constant amazement to play Nick Carraway? I was dumbfounded. Unfortunately, we had tickets for the 3:25 p.m. showing of The Great Gatsby, so my agony was somewhat premature.
In the days since we saw Gatsby, I've read myriad reviews—some borderline academic, some simply "yes" or "no"—and I've heard person after person complain about the spectacle, the audacity, the pure fluff of it all. The most common narrative is that true literature lovers, Gatsby-as-written-by-F. Scott Fitzgerald lovers, could never actually like this movie. It would be an affront to the classic novel to enjoy a film adaptation nearly 90 years after its publication. This is because interpreting a piece rather than recreating it is a Sin. Isn't that right?
No. I completely disagree. Now, I won't say that I particularly loved Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby, but I did enjoy it. Here is a concise list of its pros and cons.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
- Costumes and jewelry by Prada and Tiffany and sets to die for
- Stunning, if superfluous, special effects
- Joel freakin' Edgerton as the most perfect Tom Buchanan I could ever imagine
- Potentially interesting but overall dizzying (in a bad way) 3D effects that added nothing to the story
- Literal depiction of the story's words on screen
- TOBEY MAGUIRE: Both his acting and his role in the frame narrative
Let me expand on this last point for a moment. You must be thinking that I have an irrational hatred for Tobey Maguire. I want to confirm this suspicion. This man elicits exactly zero emotional response. Of the two available Spider-Mans, the casting team picked the wrong one. But more than Maguire's abysmal acting, I was honestly offended by the frame narrative written for him. See, in order to cement Nick Carraway as the narrator of the story, Luhrmann turns him into its writer, portraying him as a mentally unstable drunkard who's checked himself into a sanitarium in order to get sober. There, he takes on writing the story of that fateful summer as some sort of cathartic act. My problem with this is: Where did it come from? Why does Luhrmann assume Nick falls apart after Gatsby's death? Why can't he just be reflecting on his life and telling the story to, I don't know, his grandchildren? Why do we need all this extra Tobey time?
A lot of critics and viewers hated this Gatsby precisely because of the frame narrative. Irritating as it was, though, I didn't mind it in theory. I just didn't like how it was done.
Onto bigger concerns...
As flashy and entertaining I found this movie, I walked away feeling its depiction was too heavy-handed. It stayed mostly true to the novel's plot points, but on screen the grace and subtlety of Fitzgerald's storytelling was all but lost. This made me wonder whether this was as much a fault of the story as of the filmmaker, so I watched the 1974 version that starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I hated it. That version had as much heavy-handed imagery as the new one, without the visual splendor. My conclusion, therefore, that this is a story better suited to the page than the screen. It makes sense, doesn't it? Just as Daisy is a figment of Gatsby's expectations, so has this book become for American readers. The closer you get to actually experiencing it, the real it, the it you love and long for, the worse it gets.
In the face of such a realization, though, I still think you should see Luhrmann's Gatsby. It is absurd. Jay-Z produced the soundtrack, which critics also hate, but if you allow yourself to shift into the wacky, artsy world that is Luhrmann's brain, you should be able to appreciate it. I already mentioned my love of the visual carnival created by, I think, designers and magicians. The acting ranges from awful to epic, but overall succeeds.
Don't let the critics stop you from seeing this movie. In fact, see it just because it's divisive—it will certainly give you a lot to think about. Just promise me two things: 1. You won't see the movie without reading the book first. Angie will be reviewing it on Monday, so she'll convince you if I haven't. 2. Don't see it in 3D. You will end up dizzy, nauseous and a bit dazzled. (This is what I was referring to in the title of my post, if that's not clear yet.)
So have I convinced you? Will you be seeing the Gatsby that is entertaining, if not fully deserving of its adjective? Sound off in the comments!
Official images via.