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The Great Gatsby

In a rare instance of paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation opens with Nick Carraway recalling the advice of his father to “Always try to see the best in people…as a consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgment.”

You can’t help but think that Luhrmann and his co-scripter Guy Pearce are issuing a plea to the many lovers of the book, perhaps the great American novel, to go easy on them, to keep an open mind for a few hours. Because there is certainly no lack of Gatsbyphiles who have been sputtering in outrage since they saw the first trailers for the film, a visual orgy of jazz babies leaping and writhing off the screen—imagine, the damned thing is going to be in 3D! Like some comic book!—and to the strains of hip hop music, no less! The mere notion of Luhrmann setting his Australian mitts on Fitzgerald is enough to infuriate any readers who were exhausted by his magnum opus, Moulin Rouge.

But as an author whose name evades me once said when asked how he felt about having his novels adapted for movies, it doesn’t do a thing to the books—they’re still right there on the shelf anytime you want to read them. The movie is just someone else’s interpretation of them. And whatever you may think of his methods, you can’t deny that Luhrmann and Pearce have absorbed Fitzgerald’s tale pretty thoroughly.

In fact, even if you have no plans to see it, stop for a moment to be grateful that a major studio not only saw fit to fund an adaption of an unarguably literary novel, but that they gave it a big budget and are releasing it in the midst of the season owned by superheroes and alien invaders.

Is Luhrmann’s film gaudy and overstuffed? Oh yes. But it’s not inappropriate. The Great Gatsby is, after all, a story of a man seduced by excess and illusions. In case you didn’t notice, there was a lot of that going around in the last few decades. As one of the film’s producers says in the press notes, “In a time with a glittering but unreliable economy, and a prevalent sense that we have lost our way, Gatsby could have been written yesterday.”

The drawback to the approach is that it is carries out through the film, not just at Gatsby’s parties but in its evocations of the other homesteads of the old and new rich, and in the lavish recreation of Manhattan of the early 1920s (an irresistible vision and wonderful to view).

The music is not as gimmicky as in Moulin Rouge, but again seeks to combine old and new by marrying Jay-Z to the Bryan Ferry Orchestra. If you didn’t know that the former Roxy Music front man had an orchestra, well, he does, and it performs jazz standards with the edge you would expect from its namesake. Put that in a hip-hop context and you have something unique to listen to. (Would that the same could be said for Craig Armstrong’s backscore, which is traditional and overwrought.)

Luhrmann disposes of most of the book’s final chapter, and creates a frame in which Nick writes his memoir while in a sanatorium for alcoholism (a blunt but effective way of dealing with his critically argued status as an unreliable narrator). Aside from those it sticks closely to the novel, if brighter and louder. Love it or hate it, it’s mere existence is some kind of a miracle.

Watch the trailer for The Great Gatsby

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