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Ten Word or Less Review: Flat Champagne.

With the mystery of its title character, the beautiful woman from his past whom he loves from a distance, the rotten bastard she’s been married to in his absence and a boring lead character telling us all about it, English students have been expressing indifference to F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s legendary work for most of a century now.  And after a recent read through, my first since high school, as much as I hate to agree with high school kids about anything, I’m half inclined to agree with that routine response.  The masterwork of American literature didn’t illicit much more than a shrug from me.  I’ve always been lost as to why I should care about anyone in this story and a read through now didn’t change that.  So while so many literaties were ready to cry blasphemy at the prospect of razzle dazzle obsessed director Baz Lurhmann adapting the beloved effort of F. Scott, I stood ready and willing for the Bazinating of Gatsby.  Bring on the sacrelig!  Tradition can cram it!  Burn that novel to the ground and rebuild it as something glorious and profane!  But what has wound up on the screen is at best a very faithful but haphazard adaptation of the novel, albeit gussied up with fancy CGI exteriors, sharp editing and Jay-Z on the soundtrack.  And at it’s worst, this Gatsby shows that Lurhmann hasn’t moved one inch away from his career defining spectacle of Moulin Rouge because this Gatsby is close to being a near remake of that divisive and inspired musical.

Critics have been sharpening their knives on this Gatsby but in some instances they seem to be harping on cheap shot observations that don’t quite land on the reasons Gatsby doesn’t excel.  Gripping about a soundtrack made up of Jay-Z, Jack White and Florence and the Machine?  Too much CGI and visual razzmatazz?  I couldn’t disagree more.  The contemporary, anachronistic soundtrack give things much needed zip but if anything Gatsby, when compared to its older french cousin, doesn’t come close to matching that movie’s breathtaking pace and energy.  I was expecting to be assaulted and overwhelmed at all turns but instead found a movie that doesn’t begin to match the frantic footwork of it’s spiritual predecessor.  After an opening 30 minutes of extreme deja vu, one finds oneself firmly entrenched in a faithful but tensionless adaptation of Gatsby, no more, no less.  One hamstrung by uneven performances and faced with the harsh reality that Fitzgerald’s book, populated with characters who range from dull to detestable, simply doesn’t make riveting cinema, despite the director’s lavish attempt to turn into Moulin Rouge.

Lurhmann works so hard to turn Gatsby into Rouge at the outset that one is left wondering if he just took the Rouge screenplay and wrote Gatsby on it.  A young wanna be writer (Christian/Nick) comes to the big city (Paris/New York) that’s in the midst of decadent, cultural upheaval (Bohemianism/the roaring 20’s).  He winds up living directly next to the epicenter of that upheaval (the Moulin Rouge/Gatsby’s mansion) and winds up caught up in the excess of the new and free spirited world he’s found himself in.  Roaring parties, wild music and an unhinged desire for excess rule the day.  For the first time in life Christian/Nick taste booze and sex free of guilt and get lost in the haze of it.  In both instances the tragic tale unfolding is being told to us from the writer after all the mayhem has brought the party to a spectacular crash, even ending on Christian/Nick sitting at a typewriter, pecking out the story we’ve just been told.  Now granted, after the setup the stories manage to go their own way, but while Rouge was invigorating, innovative, dazzlingly romantic and bursting at the seems with energy, Gatsby is a far less mesmerizing affair.  For all the sparkle and shimmer that serve as high-priced window dressing, Lurhmann fails to cultivate any real emotion in anything.  His monumental effort slowly but surely becoming a hollow exercise in how to faithfully adapt a book, and bungle it all the same.

On paper it would seem that the casting stars were aligned for Gatsby.  DiCaprio, Maguire and Mulligan should have been a match to be equaled by few.  The mistake in casting Maguire as Carraway settles in quickly but to be fair he may have never had a chance.  That aloofness he consistently projects does him no favors here and being stuck in the unenviable position of narrating a story his character has no responsibility to other than to observe would make any actor feel left out in the cold.  Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is also a bust.  Not for any lack of effort on the luminescent young actress, but simply because Daisy Buchanan isn’t much of a character in the hands of Lurhmann’s adaptation.  The screenplay makes her a pretty but not very interesting prize being fought over by two arrogant and presumptive men and not much else.  If there’s anything to Daisy besides how pretty she is, it’s nowhere to be seen here.  Then there’s DiCaprio’s Gatsby.  If star wattage could almost lift a film up past it’s own missteps here’s a case to be made for it.  When the mysterious Gatsby finally reveals himself, DiCaprio smiling that billion dollar smile into the camera, fireworks exploding gloriously behind, one thinks that Lurhmann may have finally found the muse he needs to make his effort tick.  For a moment the film comes to life and all that energy which has been dispensed to date feels like it’s reached a point.  DiCaprio attempts the Herculean task of trying to carry the movie on his own modest shoulders.  But before long though we find ourselves settled back into the story so many know, being told in a way that feels falsely energetic and devoid of any real emotion.

This adaptation of Gatsby, much like all the others, is something that can be painlessly watched but not really cared about.  It stands as proof that once again any unfilmable book is in fact filmable, it’s just probably not wise to try.  Gatsby will survive for centuries to come, being forced down the throats of resistant high school English students for all time.  Those who cheat and watch the movie instead of reading the book will likely be hit by the same emotion, ‘What’s the big deal?’



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