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Erica Abeel Headshot

Gatsby for Dummies

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To judge by the miles of wordage expended on The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann is a PR genius. The critical consensus on the film has run from entertaining mess, to meh, to rotten tomato, to 'WTF is this'? But bottom line, it doesn't matter what's been said, only how much. To paraphrase the aphorist La Rochefoucauld from the bygone literate age, "Better they should say bad things about you than nothing at all." Allow me, then, to join the fray -- and also to assume y'all are acquainted with F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel from either high school or Cliff Notes so we can skip the summary.

Luhrmann's adaptation of Gatsby is an unholy brew of Cirque de Soleil, Disney World, Michael Bay-- and abuse of CGI and pointless use of 3-D. It also flat out celebrates and promotes the gospel of wealth. As one of the film's producers said, Gatsby and his tale are "aspirational." Luhrmann's version trumpets the view that the little guy can muscle up from nothing, own a mansion, and throw swell parties. This may resonate with the younger demographic coveted by Hollywood studios. But it violates big time the spirit and misses the point of Fitzgerald's novel.

True, Fitzgerald both drooled over and deplored the wealth on display in Gatsby. As he famously said, "The rich are different from you and me" (they don't count as the high point of their day that the #3 train rolled into the station just as you descended the subway stairs). Yet certainly the novelist was ambivalent about the excesses of his age, at the very least adopted an uneasy moral stance.

Instead of viewing Gatsby as the cautionary tale about the American Dream gone sour intended by Fitzgerald, Luhrmann seems to be saying, wow, ain't it cool. All that partying and bubbly, vintage roadsters, the yellow Duesenberg... Jay Gatsby's shirts -- as they were flung from his balcony in 3-D some viewers in the all-media screening at the Ziegfeld that I attended all but tried to grab them. Gatsby's big mistake according to Baz? He didn't have Bellringer. Or the Jazz Age version of good security. That way he wouldn't have gotten shot in his own pool for godssake. He could have learned from today's Gatsby's in the Hamptons, sequestered behind iron gates with security systems to rival that of Fort Knox.

I suspect the film will do boffo B.O. because it's in tune with the values of one large subset of "aspirational" Americans -- the college grads who take the view, Why do or make something of value when you can work on Wall Street? The ones who worship at the altar of Stephen Cohen and SAC Capital Advisors. In its hyperkinetic tempo, the Baz has made a film crying out for Ritalin. It should play well with those suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Which is less and less a disorder, and more the new normal. Those orgiastic parties and hordes of uninvited guests hurling themselves at Gatsby's castle like miners trying to flee a disaster -- perfect for the ADD crowd.

On the other hand the super romantic notion that Daisy was the only gal for Gatsby -- maybe not so perfect. In fact, Gatsby's obsession with winning over a girl who'd scorned him five years ago to marry Tom Buchanan's old money is patently ludicrous -- at least the way it plays on screen. In the novel -- such is literary sleight-of-hand -- we suspend disbelief. Fitzgerald makes it plausible partly because the green light Gatsby eyes at the end of Daisy's dock is conflated with his ambition to rise and reclaim what he imagines is rightfully his. Gatsy's jones for Daisy also rings true because Fitzgerald mythologized his own story, the rejection he endured from Ginevra King who wasn't into his net worth, then the struggle to win Zelda. But for today's viewers? C'mon, Daisy's a bee-atch, there's so much else to choose from on J Date and Match.com.

It doesn't help that the acting in Luhrmann's misfire is undistinguished at best. There's been praise for Leonardo di Caprio as Gatsby, but essentially he presents a cat-faced cipher. Carey Mulligan as Daisy, potentially a honey of a role, is so flat she's eclipsed by her outfits to die for. And she has zero chemistry with Leo. As Ryan Gosling once told me, chemistry between two leads is crucial, the gas that makes the vehicle run. Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway, the story's narrator -- and in Luhrmann's cheesy conceit its creator -- and he can't act his way out of a paper bag. Whenever I want a good chuckle I picture him as the gyn in John Irving's The Cider House Rules. Oh, and speaking of cheesy, how about Fitzgerald's immortal words typed out to float in 3-D space and all but tickle your nose? The one actor who bites into his part is wonderful Aussie actor Joel Edgerton playing the cruel, near-feral Tom Buchanan mouthing racist drivel.

We're best off viewing Luhrmann's Gatsby as a handbook for theme parties for the 1 percent. And think of future adaptations from the literate age Lhurmann might consider. How about a 3-D Dante's Inferno with Stephen Segal? Paradise Lost as an action movie. A musical based on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward. Or how about Henry James's Portrait of a Lady with Kim Kardashian or Sandra Bullock?