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Gatsby: A movie review before seeing the movie

Cover of "The Great Gatsby"

I have not seen the new Great Gatsby movie, but it is going to be horrible. How do I know? I just do. I don’t think I am alone in my opinion. (No, I am not secretly a republican congressman, or a member of the 700 club.) First off, the movie was originally slated to open at the end of 2012. It could be that the producers were worried about the Mayan end of the the world and wanted to make sure the movie beat the apocalypse to the box office, but I suspect what really happened was that the movie was previewed and people said, “This movie sucks.” So the people in charge moved the release to May.

May is a great time of year for releasing…pollen? I don’t think there has ever been a great movie released in May. May is where bad movies go to die. What makes me an expert on movie releases? Nothing, I just have been living long enough to see movie releases pushed back, and not once has the push back been a good thing. If the movie had been pushed into the summer to compete with the mindless explosion movies, I might be more willing to believe that Gatsby is going to go on to be blockbuster, but it was moved to May where it will line up against other classics like Tyler Perry Presents Peeples, and Fast and the Furious 6.

My next problem is the director, Baz Luhrmann. I don’t know much about Baz other than he directed two movies that I hated: Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet. His movies are very stylish, bright, and loud, but turning Fitzgerald’s Gatsby into a musically driven pile of bright colors and loud sounds isn’t going to make Gatsby a great movie. Take Romeo and Juliet  for example, the play is pretty good. The writing is solid and I believe the guy who penned the play knew what he was doing. Then along comes Baz who decides to spice up the play by adding loud noises, flamboyant outfits, and a gaggle of young actors that are way, way over their heads. A few of the actors did not seem to understand the words that were coming out of their mouths and so Baz gave them these two directions: “Yell the lines if you don’t know what the words mean.” Or, “Whisper the lines if you don’t know what they mean.” Shakespearian language is not about yelling and whispering, it is about understanding the words and speaking them as the writer intended. Leo DiCaprio was about the right age for Romeo, but he was terrible in the movie. Painfully terrible in my opinion. I realize that I am not the target audience, but there were times when Leo looked confused by the sounds coming out of his mouth. Someone needed to explain to him that the words were actually in English. Having the director who brought out the worst in Mr. DiCaprio does not bode well for Gatsby. Leo is older and a much better actor these days, but can his experience overcome the flashy stylings of Mr. Luhrmann? I hope so, but I doubt it.

Some books, even really great books, cannot be made into movies. Gatsby is tough to translate onto the big screen because it is Fitzgerald‘s writing that makes the book special. The plot isn’t much to get excited about (mysterious rich guy woos an old flame), but there are passages in Gatsby written by the angels sitting on Mr. Fitzgerald’s shoulder. Those words cannot be turned into a loud, flashy movie about the Roaring Twenties.

Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast “His [Fitzgerald] talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.  At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred.  Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless..” (This is one of the nicer things Mr. Hemingway said about Fitzgerald in the book. Hemingway had a way of saying something cutting and complimentary at the same time.) Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is a butterfly also. It is beautiful and floating, it moves quietly, it darts up and down, and then it rests. The butterfly is beautiful and should be enjoyed for what it is, but I fear Mr. Baz  Luhrmann fingers are covered in butterfly dust and a once beautiful thing is lying on the ground struggling to live.

12 replies »

  1. Some books just don’t translate well to film. I read Shutter Island (Weird, DiCaprio was in that one too, hmm) and I thought it was a fun read and it even had a cinematic feel to it. I don’t know if you’ve read the book or seen the film, but it just doesn’t work. I feel the book did a better job of running you in circles whereas the movie felt too big and flashy. I felt everyone who has watched the film could see the ending come from a mile away.

  2. I respectfully disagree: any book can be made into a movie. However, the book will always be better. A movie is a director’s book review, and you, more than I, would know how bad it might be.
    You may be right, but I sent your review to my cinephile son who replied:
    “interesting but I disagree.
    movies that open in December only make about 25 mil opening weekend.
    movies in may make 250 million or more. I think they realized they had a summer blockbuster
    on their hands rather than an ‘award winner’… so that’s actually cool.”

    We shall see……or, at least I will 🙂

    • I can’t argue with your son’s facts, but there were already commercials running for a December release of Gatsby. The company said the director wanted to work on the 3-D and music a little more; I think they thought DiCaprio might be up for an Oscar (hence the December release) and then moved it to May so it would be an alternative to the first run of summer blockbusters.

      Books that cannot be made into a movie: Anything by Faulkner, a good chunk of Joyce’s stuff, and the incomprehensible Infinite Jest.

  3. I agree with you Jon. Baz has murdered enough movies to make us skeptical.
    He has his own fans because, after all, taste is subjective–but he spends too big when his fans are the minority (“Australia” costed $130 millions, box office $211). Gatsby is another big budget project.

    • It looks like half of the critics agree with me. I went to the movie last weekend. It was better than I expected, but I think that is because my expectations were very low. The first half of the movie was terrible, lots of flashy nonsense and overly stylized. The second half of the movie was better because it was slower and the actors had a chance to breathe.

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