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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Great Ghastly
by Donald Levit

Scott Fitzgerald’s writing advice was to introduce a point once, subtly, and whether or not the reader got it, to move on ahead. Baz Luhrmann pays no screen heed to the novelist or, indeed, to his novel The Great Gatsby.

It is not that, an Australian filming this in New South Wales, the director, co-screenwriter and –producer, doesn’t dig American culture. He does, illustrated by this hundred-forty-three-minute, hundred-five-million-dollar spectacle rounded with another quarter-hour of credits, which epitomizes egregious tacky Hollywoodiana. Not rising to parody of self or otherwise, it misses every nuance and feeling of the 1925 work previously filmed three times (the ’74 version written by Frances Ford Coppola) plus once for television.

It is unfortunate that this song-and-dance will be the picture carried in most heads of one of our literary gems.

The original story, however, is not essentially altered. A WWI uniform making all pockets indistinguishable and equal, a penniless doughboy romances a Southern belle, is sent to the trenches only to return after her marriage to a rich philanderer, but within five years has himself amassed a fabulous fortune the sole purpose of which is to woo her back. The acting here appears, charitably, inadequate to the task, though in the players’ defense the whole seems so ill conceived and assembled that there could have been no happy outcome.

Updates are not in and of themselves bad, for example Jarman’s Edward II Marlowe and Loncraine’s Richard III Bard, among many. Homophobia, politics and fascism were and are current. It is a blessing that co-executive producer power couple Shawn “Jay Z” Carter and Beyoncé do not intrude as actors, too, but their and others’ with-it score is uncalled-for and just plain pale alongside rich original music available from the Roaring Twenties. A bid to court the juvenile and juvenile-minded demographic, it is as jarringly inappropriate as the extravaganza dance numbers and CGI great estates and Queens, New York, Valley of Ashes effectively suggested in magic Fitzgerald prose.

A WASP Minnesotan and would-be Princeton eating club member married to an unstable bipolar Alabama beauty, the author was of his time, knew few Negroes or Jews and was at best predisposed against both groups. From two lines of African-Americans glimpsed in his print, the film panders to its audience with blacks and their music and sensuality all over the screen. Based on Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Wolfsheim is not a film Fagin but dapper Amitabh Bachchan whose human molar twin cufflinks are for no reason whatsoever become a single tie tack.

The author had at last gained distance and perspective on the rich in first-person limited narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), not badly imagined here as telling the tale as AA therapy, fashioning the lion’s share of the novel on a Perkins Sanatorium Remington.

His typed, sometimes voiced-over account, however, leaves out the insincerity of the voice “full of money” of the titular hero’s Louisville love Daisy Fay Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) as well as the open secret of cheating at championship golf by her friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). Gone, too, is the metaphor of the latter’s bad driving -- everyone gets pictured as a menace behind the wheel -- and another one of both women’s deflating white dresses when French windows are closed.

Daisy and Tom’s (Joel Edgerton) daughter is so cardboard that she’s unnamed and merits only a couple of words in the novel but nevertheless serves as physical emblem of the marriage consummation. She is even less noticeable in end frames, for now the non-sexuality of Fitzgerald’s work is betrayed by Gatsby’s film flesh riding Daisy’s even if briefly. Added, some of it for 3D, have been fisticuffs, smashed liquor bottles and glasses and roadster windscreens, a sinister Karloff of a butler (Richard Carter), and a visualized shooting and fall backwards into a swimming pool instead of the original simple blood-red trail from a float.

Leonardo DiCaprio is wrong as Jay Gatsby but right when, momentarily embarrassed for once, he stammers that “this is a terrible mistake.”

(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “PG-13” for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.)

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