When you can’t look away

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) dance to some Jay-Z because that is exactly the kind of thing this film is.

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) dance to some Jay-Z because that is exactly the kind of thing this film is.

I saw Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby on the plane. It would just be a great injustice to call it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for fairly obvious reasons. It is just such an unpleasant, dreadful film. It is a CGI mess. It is a vapid adaptation of a very well-written novel.

In fact, I wrote my friend an e-mail that sort of sums up how I feel about the film:

The Great Gatsby has to be one of the most aesthetically unpleasant films I’ve ever seen. It’s just so gaudy. As a film, it kind of reminds me of an ogre–and not the friendly ones from Shrek, but a really loud, bombastic, stupid, villainous ogre. When the film (or an obnoxiously well-executed train wreck–whatever you’d prefer to call this thing) shows Gatsby’s party for the first time, I actually felt visually assaulted; it’s a pretty ugly film. Sometimes I feel like filmmakers forget that cinematography isn’t supposed distract the audience, but to enhance the film itself. Some of the scenes were filmed for 3D and I can’t even begin to imagine how disgusting that cinematic experience must have been for the poor souls who had to endure it.

While I’ve never been a fan of the Gatsby story, I do admire Fitzgerald’s writing. And what makes Gatsby such a quintessential novel about the downfall of the American dream is that, through narrator Nick Carraway, the reader understands the seductive beauty of Gatsby’s wealth, but comes to term with the fact that it’s just this superficial facade to win the heart of a shallow, ditsy girl. However, director Luhrmann seems to think the story’s emphasis is the sheer excess of Gatsby’s wealth–and sure, that is part of the novel too–but the excess isn’t supposed to be a circus of disco ball puke. It’s supposed to be charismatic, it’s supposed to be pretty. Or else someone like Nick wouldn’t have been so drawn to it.

(That said, I was kind of okay with the modern soundtrack. At first, it was bizarre to see 1920s Americans jamming to Jay-Z all the time, but I quickly got over it. There is actually a lot of Jay-Z on the soundtrack; when the credits rolled, I realized that Jay-Z is credited as a producer on the film. )

And I’ve always sort of resented films that are so intent on reminding its audiences that it’s an adaptation of some beloved book. It just makes me think that the filmmaker already thinks his film won’t be able to stand on its own because he already knows it’s terrible; he’s given up, he’s waving the white flag. Gatsby sort of takes it too far, though: Fitzgerald’s words literally appear on the screen. Yes, you see and hear the words, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Someone needs to tell Luhrmann that he is trying to make a film, not trying his hand at blatant literary plagiarism.

Honestly, some books just can’t be properly adapted into films. Gatsby just looks dumb when he’s reaching for the green light, or throwing his shirts around. In film, those scenes just come off as heavy handed rather than cleverly symbolic. I suppose there is a filmmaker can pull those scenes off without trying so hard, but Luhrmann evidently loves trying too hard.

Without getting too into it, the acting is generally pretty bad. None of the actors have any chemistry. Well, I take that back–Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, who play Nick and Daisy, respectively, seem to have some sort of chemistry going on, though I can’t really decipher whether it’s a romantic kind of chemistry or a sibling-esque kind of chemistry. So this is when you know your adaptation of Gatsby is problematic–the only actors in your cast with any chemistry are the ones who play Nick and Daisy. Also, one of the most cringe-worthy scenes is when Nick helps Gatsby and Daisy meet for the first time. I haven’t read the book in years so I don’t actually recall what happens, but the film version tries to squeeze some humor out of it and it’s actually kind of embarrassing to watch. That scene feels like it was taken out from a really bad and cheesy romantic comedy musical from the 1950s.

So ugh, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald is rolling his grave right now.

Which brings me to films of recent years that are marinated with so much misguided ambition, so much boldness. And I think, oftentimes, I’m more inclined to admire the film for its balls. In fact, I tend to admire films for their balls–period. In an era where so many filmmakers can be lazy, it is always sort of refreshing to see a filmmaker go over-the-top, with such blistering bravado. I remember in my conflicted review for The Dark Knight Rises from a year ago, I knew I walked out of the theater thinking the film I just watched sort of sucked. However, I couldn’t find it in me to say, “The Dark Knight Rises sucks” because I know that, deep down, there are parts in Christopher Nolan’s clunky epic that I really did find it in my hearts of hearts to admire.

In my review, I sort of mentioned my weird admiration for Spider-Man 3 as well. I remember finishing Spider-Man 3 and thinking that it was a really moving film. I don’t know if it was Snow Patrol’s “Signal Fire” playing over the closing credits that got to me, but I really thought it was a flawed, but very harrowing, genuinely moving film, and despite all the hate I get for it, I stand by my opinion. Sure, it’s not nearly as great as Spider-Man 2 and yes, the plot is really convoluted, but I don’t think I’ve seen a superhero film that is so fearlessly, emotionally charged as Spider-Man 3 and I don’t think I’ve seen one since. Spider-Man 3 feels like a superhero film that isn’t afraid to cry.

In a kind of twisted way, I couldn’t keep my eyes away from Luhrmann’s disastrous Gatsby adaptation. I could have turned it off. I could have started watching something else. No, I kept watching. There is something really alluring about misguided ambition. There are very few directors who are as ballsy as Luhrmann; he’s so confident in his work and it shows up on screen, in every elaborate set piece he has selected. Sometimes it works beautifully–namely, in Moulin Rouge. Sometimes it feels sort of oddly amateurish–as demonstrated in Romeo + Juliet.  But sometimes the mantra of “more, more, more!” can get a little crazy and you end up with something as awful as Gatsby.

I also think my general distaste of Gatsby may be due to the fact that it’s also an adaptation of a novel that I’ve read. While I haven’t read it in a while, Luhrmann gives off the impression that he’s completely missed the point. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is not a romance, and for Luhrmann to paint it as a romance just shows how little he actually understands the novel. I would even say that Jack Clayton “got” it in his bland 1974 adaptation, in all the ways that Luhrmann did not.

However, there are certainly film adaptations that seem to completely miss the point, or seem to completely disregard their source material, and I still sort of end up enjoying them anyway. And I don’t mean this in the way that Harry Potter fans whine about the Harry Potter films; I mean this in a way that there is a blatant lack of devotion to the source material, not just cutting things out, but adding things in. I think there is a tendency for filmmakers and screenwriters to take their favorite works, adapt it, and add in a bit of fanfiction. I think that’s what happened with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian is probably one of my least favorite books in the Narnia series, but the film adaptation is just so much fun. I don’t care if there are fight scenes or a romance that didn’t occur in the book. Harry Potter book loyalists would have gone insane if a film so blatantly bastardized Rowling’s works the way Prince Caspian did to Lewis’s work. But would it have been okay if it was as fun as Prince Caspian? We’ll never know.

Ambition is sort of ubiquitous. You don’t have to look all the way back to Elaine May’s infamous box-office bomb Ishtar or Francis Ford Coppola’s critically ridiculed The Godfather: Part III to see ambition at its most evident–though, personally, I find both films to be quite good. Or, even the soaring, over-saturated audacity of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which I happen to love so very, very much. Dreamgirls is heavily ambitious. You can feel that the film was out for Oscar blood in every frame–and I ended up loving it. Definitely, Maybe is fairly ambitious for a romantic comedy, in the sense that it’s obvious that it wants to be much, much more than a romantic comedy, but it sort of ends up in the mundane trappings of its genre to be anything truly lively or original. Hell, even New Moon is pretty ambitious, with its rich, textured cinematography and its attempt to elegantly weave together a bunch of terrible, stupid subplots. And oh goodness– the recent musical adaptation of Les Miserables, probably the worst abuser of ambition, mainly because it flaunts its “real” singing and its badly conceived close-ups without shame. Perhaps ambition is the most often-abused quality in cinema, but it is also the best defense.

I like ambition. I can’t find myself to actually hate Definitely, Maybe, Les Miserables, New Moon, and evidently, The Dark Knight Rises because they are so damn sure of themselves–well, actually the jury is kind of still out on New Moon because that is a truly terrible story with one of the most despicable protagonist of recent times. There is a sense that modern films like to play it safe, so it’s always a welcomed sight when the audience actually feels like the filmmaker is actually attempting something different, even when he or she isn’t really sure what that “something” is.

So if there is one compliment I can pay Luhrmann, it’s that he’s not apathetic. He’s passionate–oh sure, sometimes pathetically so–but he’s willing to take risks in a way that many filmmakers are too shy, too modest to do. While Gatsby is an awful film, Luhrmann is clearly something else–I’m not sure what that “something” is yet, but I sure wouldn’t mind finding out the answer in the future.