Call me old fashioned but some things should be approached in an old fashioned way. Take the story of The Great Gatsby, for example. Considered a quintessential American novel, the book has gone on to inspire millions and weave itself into the fabric of our pop culture. But just because a story has a built in audience does not mean it needs to be re-imagined to speak to a wider demographic.
That is exactly what happened to George Lucas with the Star Warsprequels, has Hollywood learned nothing. Director Baz Luhrman has turned a film about love, jealousy and excess in The Jazz Age into more of a theme park than an actual movie. The plot ofGatsby is relatively simple. Man of mystery Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaptrio) has become famous in 1922 New York for throwing outlandish and wild parties at his mansion in Long Island every week. No one knows much about him and he rarely even attends his own parties. His new neighbor Nick Carroway (Tobey Maquire) happens to be the cousin of the love of his life Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who lives on the other side of the lake. Connected by a green light Gatsby secretly yearns for Daisy but has no means of reaching out to her until Carroway comes on the scene. I won’t give much away of what happens next but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story remains one of the best romantic tragedies of the 20th century. And that is just it. The problem isn’t with the story, it is with the interpretation.
Instead of focusing on the dramatic elements of the novel Luhrman amps up the excess and loses the soul of piece. This is further hampered by his use of modern day hits in place of Jazz-era tunes. Replacing Cole Porter with Jay-Z may be quasi-metaphorical but it tends to be seriously distracting and takes the audience out of the picture. This isn’t the first time Lurhman has tried that approach. By fusing modern music with classic imagery his masterpiece Moulin Rouge brought the audience deeper into the picture. But that gimmick only worked because the setting itself was a nightclub and it didn’t seem that out of place. With Gatsby he applies it to the whole era and it just falls flat. If it served a larger purpose it would make more sense but it seems to go nowhere and is quickly abandoned by halfway through the movie.
The film itself went through many problems in post-production and that becomes clear in the final product. Desperate for funding, Lurhman ended up getting funding from multiple companies all of whom have blatant product placement throughout the movie. The most obvious example of this is during Carroway’s frantic car ride into the city with Gatsby. The two spot a car full of people hanging out of their seats drinking Moet champagne and blasting Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” This by itself is rather jarring given the context but it becomes flat out insulting when you find out that the company did a tie-in with the movie so that their champagne would be prominently featured. Moments like that are a slap in the face of moviegoers everywhere and ends up turning the entire movie into an extended commercial.
Anyone involved with the film that still claims that it holds up to Fitzgerald’s vision has obviously never heard his famous quote “Advertising is a racket, like the movies and the brokerage business. You cannot be honest without admitting that its constructive contribution to humanity is exactly minus zero.” If he saw his most prized work interpreted to sell products he would be outraged.
That is not to say that the whole movie is a total disappointment. The set pieces are breathtaking and Lurhman really has outdone himself. The costume design is breathtaking and he really seems to have embraced the styles of the period. But that is all style and no substance. Any film, especially one that clocks in at almost two and a half hours, needs more to it than flash.
In theaters, May 10th. Watch the trailer here.