Da Gr8 Gatsbee

AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures

The book will still be around in the morning. That's the best advice I can give anyone appalled by the mere existence of director Baz Luhrman's 3-D, darn near transcendently tasteless screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby—or Da Gr8 Gatsbee, as I've grown fond of calling Luhrman's version.  

For once, I find myself almost envying people who've never read Fitzgerald's novel. Free of literacy's inner censure, untroubled by invidious comparisons, they can just let the whole whooshing, clamorous debauch run them over like a fire truck tearing after a burning Christmas tree, emerging dazed but sated. Then again, ex-English major or no, that was pretty much my own reaction.

Combined, true, with a few incredulous giggle-fits that may have annoyed the soignée senior citizen sitting next to me. (No more Baz's target audience than I am, she did look charming in 3-D glasses.) Though I thoroughly enjoyed myself—and don't feel at all sheepish about it, so there—it may be for the best that the late Roger Ebert didn't live to see Da Gr8 Gatsbee. Not only was denouncing 3-D's gimmicky encroachments the great man's last hurrah as an aesthetic gatekeeper, but his admirers know that his lifelong adoration of Gatsby-the-novel bordered on uxorious.

Funnily enough, it's plain that Luhrman himself—director, most notoriously, of Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!—is no less besotted by The Great Gatsby than Ebert was. It's just that everything this meta-kitschy director loves ends up as a form of self-love, a good reason for him to identify with Fitzgerald's trashy-but-Platonic hero. To Baz's mind, Luhrmanizing the bejesus out of the material no doubt demonstrates that he and F. Scott are kindred spirits. The fallacy here is that they're hardly artistic peers. Nonetheless, devotion minus piety is a big improvement on piety minus devotion—the usual Achilles' heel of big-screen adaptations of prestigious novels.

It's a great joke that the latest screen adaptation of a book that helped define the nature of modernity is being assailed for being too "modern." You know, because Jay-Z's on the soundtrack, because Luhrman's camera and cutting style both suffer from the same hypertrophic case of ADD, because the results traffic in, ahem, hysteria. All those choices are worth arguing over, but who the hell wanted another of those muted Masterpiece Theater versions where the clothes make the corpse? The best thing about Da Gr8 Gatsbee is that it renews The Great Gatsby as a live wire in our ever more necrophiliac relationship to the 20th century. For better and worse, Luhrman's film is one of the mourners, not a dim frieze on the tomb.

Significantly, the movie's top half, before Gatsby (Leonardo di Caprio) and his Daisy (Carey Mulligan) reunite and the shit eventually hits the literal Plaza Hotel fan, is the big desecration—and also the most fun. Anyone who complains that the second hour is the dull part, which it is, has no reason to moan that the movie isn't sufficiently faithful to the book. The vagueness about how our favorite symbols of, respectively, American yearning and American privilege actually behave during their abortive second-chance idyll, the too strenuously contrived engineering of the final tragedy—both failings are right there in the novel, where they're expertly disguised by the most economically lavish prose anybody ever wrote. Since the showman in Baz is limited to hyping the material, not reinventing it—the frame story about how Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) came to write up his recollections of his Long Island neighbor aside—no wonder he can't overcome either problem.

I don't have any trouble sympathizing with anybody who's angry over how Luhrman uses African Americans as not people, but decor. The bemuscled black trumpet player wailing away on a fire escape during Nick's phantasmagoric first encounter with New York's anything-goes side at Tom Buchanan's (Joel Edgerton's) hands really is a bit much, though the sequence is surprisingly effective otherwise. Yet the black performers at Gatsby's parties are very much there to remind us that the Jazz Age was, among other things, white sophisticates' first embrace of the chic of what used to be called Negritude—meaning Josephine Baker, the Cotton Club and all that. If Luhrman directs them like they're posters come to life, that's not necessarily stupid, however offensive to modern eyes.

Nobody's going to mistake Da Gr8 Gatsbee for a great movie. Aside from one superb performance—di Caprio's —I wouldn't advise Oscar voters to salivate, not if they know what's good for them. Since they usually do, Leo will probably have to content himself with it's-an-honor-just-to-be-nominated. But this is the only screen version of the novel that doesn't smack of the graveyard, and that's something. Forgive me, Roger Ebert, but even the 3-D isn't too bad. 

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