The Great Gatsby

great-gatsby“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

As the final words of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby floated across the screen in the latest film interpretation, I was transported back to a classroom in 1971 where a group of bored teenagers were forced to read this classic aloud. As a pimply, mush-mouthed boy attempted to wrap his Appalachian accent around the final sentence of the book, he unfortunately misread the closing phrase as, “So we beat off…” The classroom erupted with hoots and hollers, and since then the poetry of this ending has always brought a little smirk to my face.

Filming a classic piece of fiction is always going to be a little tricky. People cart along their own memory-stuffed baggage with a well-loved book and the filmmaker has to tread carefully to avoid shattering too many of those illusions. Or he can just say screw it and do whatever he wants. Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge) has gotten away with this type of approach before (Romeo and Juliet), so he seemed like an obvious choice to attempt another classic. The results are not completely successful, but certainly make for an interesting two hours and twenty minutes at the movies.

The excesses of the rich are on full display onscreen and seem very current given the divide between the classes still lingering from the recession. Fitzgerald’s novel was meant to showcase his disdain for the rich, but the party sequences seem almost disconnected from the rest of the film. I saw the movie with an editor who kept saying “Why is the editing so weird? Why is everything so flat?” We agreed that the effect was intentional to show how shallow the guests were, but it seems to me that the parties at the beginning should have been enviably amazing. Everyone shows up at Gatsby’s! — until they don’t.

The sweeping wide shots were exaggerated to the point that it seemed like a parody of a big budget musical; the first time we actually see Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (with the climatic ending of Rhapsody in Blue pounding in the background) reminded me of the huge close-up of Gene Kelly from Singin’ in the Rain. The film had an old-fashioned feel that seemed wrong for a movie being touted as a contemporary remake complete with JayZ on the soundtrack. (Rant: can anyone hear Rhapsody in Blue these days and not think of United Airlines? I curse the stupid advertisers who have ruined this beautiful piece of music for me!)

Leo was fine as Gatsby, although his attempt to make Fitzgerald’s language sound unstilted made me cringe every time he called someone ‘Old Spore’ – they are not units of asexual reproduction! There is a “t” at the end of that word! At times he almost seemed to be channeling Robert Redford, who was the last actor to play Gatsby on-screen. Carey Mulligan wasn’t quite vapid enough for Daisy and Tobey Maguire was a little too vapid for Nick. The film opens with Nick’s narration — where Tobey Maguire weirdly sounds exactly like Winona Ryder at the start of Edward Scissorshands — as he struggles to come to terms with this story and ends up writing the novel. This is not in the original book, unless Baz Luhrman is saying that Nick is actually Fitzgerald. I always thought the character of Gatsby was closer to Fitzgerald, but now I see that Gatsby is actually a jazz-age precursor to Don Draper. My attention might have wandered just a little during the film.

I did not see the movie in 3D as I do not want to encourage directors to use this kind of technology when the only point to it is to make me pay an extra three dollars. Apparently the written words of the novel floated in 3D, a technique that seems pretty hokey to me. The one scene I would have liked to see in another dimension was poor Leo going down (again!) into the deep blue water, sinking to yet another watery grave. Jack, I’ll never let go!

Barf Bag Rating: ZERO BAGS

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