The Great Gatsby

Baz Lurhmann's 3D update is an exuberant mess.

Great Gatsby via Warner BrothersGreat Gatsby via Warner BrothersAfter seeing The Great Gatsby in hip-hopified 3D, I’m looking forward to the other similarly hip updates on other early-20th century literary classics that are sure to follow if the new Gatsby is a success. Imagine: Ulysses, in IMAX! The Old Man and the Sea, the Ride! The Awakening, in Smell-o-Vision! Director Baz Luhrmann’s ecstatic, occasionally spastic, adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel isn’t much less ridiculous than any of those ideas, yet what’s surprising is that some of it works anyway—not in spite of Luhrmann’s revisionism, but because of it. What Luhrmann loses in nuance and tonal faithfulness he makes up for with glitz and zest. He doesn’t adapt the book so much as extract its key components, strap on some fireworks, and then let the whole thing explode.

In some ways the adaptation is quite faithful to the source material. Fans of the book will find all the book’s major story elements, slightly rearranged to maximize cinematic impact, as well as a heavy dose of direct quotation, both in dialogue and voice-over narration. The story, about mysterious new-money gazillionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his quest for a lost love, is still told by his wide-eyed young neighbor, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Old-money rivals Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) still live in a mansion just across the water from Gatsby’s palace, and there’s still a pile-up of late-story complications involving an auto mechanic (Jason Clarke), his lusty wife (Isla Fisher), and the crooked businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan).

But where Luhrmann departs from Fitzgerald book is in his tone. Despite the presence of Carraway’s narration, the story is no longer presented as an individual’s inner experience. Instead, Luhrmann has transformed it into a kind of spectacle—part music video, part big-budget Broadway production, part club-thump dance party.

The movie’s nightlife energy is hypnotic at times, but it can also be distracting. Luhrmann’s soundtrack is packed with high-velocity remixes of Jay-Z and Kanye West, which he zaps into the middle of scenes with frantic urgency. Two characters will exchange a few lines of dialogue, then he’ll cut away to a dance party happening in another room. Then back to the characters and their conversation—but only for a few more lines before hurling viewers back to the party. Just like the endless subwoofer boom of real dance clubs, it makes regular conversation impossible.

Great Gatsby via Warner BrothersGreat Gatsby via Warner BrothersEven still, it makes for an impressive spectacle, especially in 3D, and at least for a while, it’s exhilarating. But after an hour or so, it becomes exhausting, more like watching a two-hour commercial for a high-concept take on The Great Gatsby than watching the actual movie.

And when Luhrmann eventually does slow down for a beat or two, the movie loses its considerable drive. The director seems to have no idea what real human interaction is like, and no interest either. If it’s not a party, it’s not worth his time. It doesn’t help that he seems to have coached his actors into a overly broad, theatrical performances that sometimes seem more like soap-opera than cinema. The lone exception is DiCaprio. The 38-year-old actor is well-cast as the mysterious central character, a man of great riches and great anxiety who is trying to convince the world, and himself, that he’s not a fake. But the other performers are simply props; it’s always Luhrmann who holds center stage with his tireless vision of partying and privilege. He’s not interested in what the characters said or thought but in what they did and how it felt.

That sensibility makes the movie something of an exhausting mess, but it’s also a gorgeous, glorious, over-the-top vision, and an innovative attempt at reimagining an older classic for a modern audience. Is it the sort of thing that could ever work again? I’m skeptical, but to find out for sure I suppose we’ll have to wait for the sequel.

Find this and hundreds of other interesting books at the Reason Shop, powered by Amazon.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I guess AM links, like Gatsby, were a fraud all along.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    FIRST.

  • Tim||

    Eat your heart out, Kurt Loder.

  • gordonshane1101||

    my buddy's mother makes $84 every hour on the computer. She has been without work for 8 months but last month her check was $12342 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more here... WWW.DAZ7.COM

  • felicia22||

    Nolan. I just agree... Leslie`s bl0g is really cool, on monday I bought a great new Lotus Esprit after having earned $4034 this-last/4 weeks and in excess of $10k last month. this is definitely my favourite work Ive ever done. I started this 10-months ago and practically straight away startad bringin home over $81, per-hour. I work through this link, http://www.fox86.com

  • jensua07||

    Evan. I just agree... Patrick`s report is impressive... last tuesday I bought a great Volkswagen Golf GTI after I been earnin $8978 this-last/5 weeks an would you believe $10,000 last-munth. it's realy the easiest-job Ive ever done. I began this 3 months ago and immediately got me over $73 per-hr. I went to this website grand4.com
    (Go to site and open "Home" for details)

  • markhit07||

    Evan. I just agree... Patrick`s report is impressive... last tuesday I bought a great Volkswagen Golf GTI after I been earnin $8978 this-last/5 weeks an would you believe $10,000 last-munth. it's realy the easiest-job Ive ever done. I began this 3 months ago and immediately got me over $73 per-hr. I went to this website grand4.com
    (Go to site and open "Home" for details)

  • jillian77||

    my buddy's mom makes $62 an hour on the internet. She has been out of a job for seven months but last month her paycheck was $19446 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this site http://www.fox86.com

  • Restoras||

    Smell-o-vision?!?! I stole that first!!
    *shakes first, writes Suderman on list*

  • Auric Demonocles||

    The Old Man and the Sea, the Ride!

    I think Maeby is already working on this, the way someone better be working on the AM Links.

  • ||

    Remember when AM/PM links were always on time, and Reason authors didn't regularly SF their own links in their articles?

    You know who used to work here before all of that went to crap?

  • Tim||

    "The movie’s nightlife energy is hypnotic at times, but it can also be distracting distracting."

    Quality editing right there there.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Haul in the fish and get real rope burns!

  • Don Mynack||

    God, I hate Baz Luhrmann. Please let this bomb so we never hear from this clown again.

  • Rich||

    I suppose we’ll have to wait for the sequel.

    Hope it doesn't take as long as the links.

  • tarran||

    Honestly, I've never understood the appeal of the Great Gatsby. I found it boring and insipid - even Ayn Rand's villains are more interesting and lifelike.

  • Tim||

    Sort of like Leonardo DiCaprio.

  • mr simple||

    Yes. I came in here just to say that he is the most overrated actor I've ever seen. I can't believe he gets leading roles in big production movies anymore. He just seemingly randomly blurts out lines with a dead expression on his face. I enjoyed Inception, but it was in spite of his acting, not because of it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I agree--he's grossly overrated. I think it's from all the teen girls who were gaga over him back when he was young.

  • ||

    I thought he was very good in The Departed.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I don't hate him and have liked him in some roles. But he's no great actor that needs to be in leads all of the time. Almost as annoying as the ubiquitous Marky Mark.

  • ||

    Wait, I thought it was Marky Mark and MATT DAMON in The Departed.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Another movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays Leonardo DiCaprio?

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Yeah it's a piece of crap, then again, I think all of the early 20th century 'great' progressive novels are too.

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's one reason Hemingway is fun to read. It's got some teen angst in it, but it's more about getting drunk and doing manly things, anyway.

  • Tim||

    The missing links.

  • Tim||

    " Is it the sort of thing that could ever work again? I’m skeptical, but to find out for sure I suppose we’ll have to wait for the sequel."

    Great idea: we do an animated 3D version with Cats. The Great Catsby! Get it? The kids will love it. It will work on two levels: cat jokes and sexual innuendo. It even ends with Catsby getting run over by a car...

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Add a science fiction component and he could get caught up in the Superconducting Kitty Collider! "MeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooow!"

  • Live Free or Diet||

    The director doesn’t adapt the book so much as extract its key components, strap on some fireworks, and then let the whole thing explode.

    It still has to be better than the 1974 version, right? Or is it that the book just didn't give much to work with? (The '74 movie was so bad I never bothered to read the book.)

  • cavalier973||

    "The movie’s nightlife energy is hypnotic at times, but it can also be distracting. Luhrmann’s soundtrack is packed with high-velocity remixes of Jay-Z and Kanye West, which he zaps into the middle of scenes with frantic urgency."

    What? No 1920's-style jazz? I hate this movie already.

    On the other hand, I think that a movie adaptation of Babbitt should open with this music.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    If this book was so good, how come they teach it in high school English? At least it's short, so it accommodated my attention span.

  • AlgerHiss||

    The Great Gatsby – 1974: Staring an overrated leftist simp.

    The Great Gatsby – 2013: Staring an overrated leftist simp sans the cheek wart.

    The only question might be: Do Robert and Leonard have carnal knowledge of one another?

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement