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The Execrable Gatsby

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People (my mother especially) often note that I am quick to pre-judge things that I assume I’ll hate, and then to avoid them, thus never giving them a chance.  How limiting, how sad.  Why, that TV show could be the greatest thing since ever.  Oh, so that single is inane; the rest of the album is great.  Et caetera.  Most of the time, I stick to my guns.  There’s just no way I’m ever going to care about The Hunger Games, or Fifty Shades of Shit, or Tom Hanks movies, or dozens of other things.  I know this.  So I don’t bother sitting through something I know I’ll find pointless.

But a little voice in the back of my head has been chirping since well before the May release date of The Great Gatsby: what if it’s good?  You’re not immune to Baz Luhrmann; you just think he’s undisciplined.  Maybe he’s learned a thing or two.  You like the 1920s.  You think the novel is pretty good.

So finally, I watched it.  And I cannot remember hating anything else as much I as I hated The Great Gatsby.  Please note: I’ve seen Salo.

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Let me try to muster some praise before I get out my surgical knives.  Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Gatsby – he really, really is.  He’s something of a cipher, just as he should be.  The costumes and sets, all designed by Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin, are gorgeous.  There are many truly beautiful shots, moments, small moments where the camera lingers.  And, I mean, I like Jay-Z.  Jay-Z songs are fun.

Is that all I have in my plus column?  Let’s see…yes.  Yes, that’s all.  Nurse: scalpel.

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We’ll start with those Jay-Z songs.  As enjoyable as I find them, and as interesting as it would have been for this to have been a movie about a self-made hip-hop mogul who was never able to overcome certain impossible obstacles that he failed to acknowledge (oh, hey, didn’t The Wire kinda do that? yeah? it did exactly that, with Gatsby allusions and all? huh, interesting), they do nothing here.  I get it.  The edgy, youthful (soi-disant, anyway) soundtrack is intended to translate the excitement and hedonism of the 1920s into a language that modern audiences will understand.  If Quentin Tarantino could throw a James Brown/Tupac mashup into Django Unchained, Baz seems to have thought, then I can throw in a swing/hip-hop version of “Crazy in Love”!  Except not.  Not at all.  Tarantino chooses his music very carefully.  Instrumental pieces suit the tenor of the scene precisely.  Songs with vocals contribute some extra understanding on every level: musical, lyrical, performative.  Luhrmann, or the soundtrack’s producer, Mr. Shawn Carter himself, just picked a bunch of stuff to try to make the ’20s cool.  Well, the ’20s were cool, all on their own, for one thing; and for another thing, I don’t generally mind anachronistic touches if they’re carefully thought out.  But none of this was.  Literally none of it.  What does the absurd cover version of “Back to Black” have to do with anything?  It’s about The Other Woman accepting a life of oblivion.  Where does that fit here?  Nowhere?  Thought so.

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Oh, and I gritted my teeth big time when would-be emotional moments were underscored with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  That wasn’t, I don’t think, meant as an anachronism; I think it was meant to lend an air of period authenticity; and it was written in 1924.  Gatsby takes place in 1922.  Oopsadaisy!

That leads me to another issue – nitpicky though it may seem.  The fantastic fashion history blog OMG That Dress! has covered this much better, so you should check out what she has to say about it, but the fashion – beautiful as it is – is all dead wrong.  Clothes weren’t the same all throughout the 1920s.  Think about what was popular, fashion-wise, in 2002.  Compare it to 2009.  Seven years can make a huge difference – and they especially made a huge difference in ’20s fashions.  Fashions of 1922 were much more like this:

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Much less like this:

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Luhrmann isn’t clever enough to be making a point by telling his wife to design such wrong costumes, so I’d say this is all just due to shoddy research.

Enough of the periphery.  Let’s get down to what was wrong in the movie’s heart and soul.  To begin with, the framing device of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) re-telling the story from a sanitarium is STUPID.  Not only does it lend itself to the most absurdly amateurish flourishes (actual words from the narration appearing, typewritten, on the screen as Maguire reads them), it also leads to the mind-numbing idiocy of Carraway’s description of a scene…being read aloud…while the scene is happening.  It’s like the descriptions for the visually impaired keep turning themselves on and off.  I’m all for accessibility, but I don’t think that’s what Luhrmann was going for.  What was he going for?  Christ, who knows.

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Then there’s the alleged love story.  Gatsby has created himself and a whole universe to try to win Daisy (Carey Mulligan) back.  There’s no problem with the chemistry between DiCaprio and Mulligan; no, very few of the problems here are due to the performers.  But Luhrmann has, in his usual childish way, completely under-interpreted the Gatsby/Daisy story.  It’s been a while since I read the book, but I seem to recall that Gatsby was more obsessed than in love with a real person (think, if you must, of the Tom character in 500 Days of Summer), and that Daisy was a bit of a flibbertigibbet.  Here, we have instead star-crossed lovers, yet again.  Luhrmann gave us Shakespeare’s tale of horny teenagers as yet another paean to true love – the only thing he seems to make movies about.  Pity he doesn’t seem to understand what love actually is.

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Then there’s the CGI.  The over-active camera.  The hummingbird-flit edits.  The characterization of Daisy’s husband as a cartoon, rather than as a real threat.  The unintentional anachronisms.  The wasted talent of the actors.  The wasted talent of the costume designer.  The wasted/misapplied talent of Jay-Z.

I could go on.  But I’ll stop.

It was awful.  Just awful, from start to finish.  I am not the first or the last to think so, of course.

Isn’t it just a shame, though, to think of what could have been – with this cast, this costume designer (and a better research department – under more capable/perceptive direction?  I lay awake nearly all last night, thinking about it.

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6 comments on “The Execrable Gatsby

  1. I’m sticking with not seeing it.

  2. Karen
    June 21, 2013

    Ha! I was waiting for your review. Thank you for seeing it for me. (I probably will eventually, but obviously, there is no rush.) About this “you’re missing out on things”…there are SO MANY great films (and books) in the universe that I WANT to see (read) and have not, why waste time on those I know I’m not going to like?

    Here’s an interesting post about the fashions in Gatsby from the Clothes on Film blog, if you’re interested in reading another opinion about the clothes: http://clothesonfilm.com/costume-in-the-great-gatsby-use-your-imagination/31566/ I think when some of the details about the fashions in the film started to leak, many in the vintage clothing world were getting worked up about the lack of period authenticity. I like period authenticity as much as the next vintage loving/selling-gal; however, I like a creative/cohesive/interesting vision much more. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like Luhrmann has managed this.

    • mcwhirk
      June 21, 2013

      I was slightly drunk when I wrote it, but I stand by what I said.

      I will have to check that blog out. I’m not a slave to period detail in films, but if something is just lazy and badly thought out, then I have a problem. Besides, it’s VERY specific – in both the novel and in the film – that this all takes place in 1922. Flapper fashion didn’t get to be so outre until later in the 1920s. Like the inclusion of Rhapsody in Blue, the clothing was (I think) intended to be an accurate period detail – but it just fucking wasn’t.

  3. Pingback: 250 Film Challenge: Lady Windermere’s Fan (Silent 11/50) | more stars than in the heavens

  4. wordpooh
    June 24, 2013

    But if you hadn’t actually seen the movie, we would have been deprived of your pithy and passionate prose, your witty way with words…ok, I’ll cool it on the alliteration. However, your critique has substance, based on something more than pre-judgment.
    Do you know the dress you chose to illustrate is the very color that my grandmother’s flapper dress was? It had silver beads (hand-sewn) and fringe.

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