Watching Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is like watching a movie when you have a fever. Ever watch a movie when you’re home sick, really sick, and whatever movie it is, you see it as an absurd, surrealistic fantasy? That’s how Luhrmann’s Gatsby plays, and that’s how it looks.
With its reliance on CGI vistas rendered in blunt color no more impressive than the comic book special effect on iMovie, along with its gratuitous shots of snowflakes or confetti flying out for 3D effect, the movie is more comic book than film. As I watched, I found myself remembering the Classics Illustrated comics I used to collect and read when I was a boy.
Classics Illustrated (originally Classic Comics) were comic book versions of works of classic literature. My favorite issues were The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Toilers of the Sea, The Octopus, and Lord Jim. Their colorful, realistic line drawings never detracted from the drama of the story or the words of the original. Artwork varied throughout the issues. Some of the more distorted, surrealistic artwork competed with the story. Nevertheless, each comic book carried a postscript that, to this day, is responsible for my being a voracious reader: NOW THAT YOU HAVE READ THE CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED EDITION, DON’T MISS THE ADDED ENJOYMENT OF READING THE ORIGINAL, OBTAINABLE AT YOUR SCHOOL OR PUBLIC LIBRARY. I did exactly what the postscript suggested.
As a Classics Illustrated, Luhrmann’s Gatsby would have been one of the more oddball editions. Its flamboyant visuals smother the drama and emotion. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not speaking as an outraged fan of the novel. In fact, The Great Gatsby, a watered-down, Americanized take on Heart of Darkness, is not one of my favorite works of American literature.
As a film, however, The Great Gatsby is choked to the point of emotional inertia by smothering CGI, harsh noise, and frenetic motion. Gatsby drives fast, likes to throw big parties, his guests drink a lot. We get the point!
As for the performers, Carey Mulligan plays Daisy like she’s drugged by all the flowers that surround her in a number of scenes and Joel Edgerton renders Tom Buchanan as scary caricature. Tobey Maguire has trouble keeping his eyeballs from popping out of his head, but his languorous voice-over narrative captures some of the spirit of the story. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio makes you see and feel the character of Gatsby, a golden hero with an enigmatic past. As the film sags under the bloat, DiCaprio gives us a Gatsby to care about. In his winning but tortured good looks you can see the passion that drives him and the innocent vulnerability that is his undoing.
But DiCaprio’s performance is not enough, and even during the film’s final recital of the novel’s famous last lines, you wonder where The Great Gatsby was in all the shallow glitz. Well, I guess, NOW THAT YOU HAVE SEEN THE LUHRMANN COMIC VERSION, DON’T MISS THE ADDED ENJOYMENT OF READING THE ORIGINAL, OBTAINABLE AT YOUR SCHOOL OR PUBLIC LIBRARY.