To hear the critics tell it, Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" is the disappointment of the year. There's not enough jazz, they say. There was no 3-D in the 1920s! It's two movies that don't fit together! Has Jay-Z even read the book?!
If you're a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald's book, take a deep breath. It's not as bad as they make it seem.
Let's examine some of the reasons that folks are saying Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan's romp through Manhattan, West Egg and the barren lands in between falls flat. The primary complaints about the movie are as follows:
The movie isn't faithful to the Jazz Age.
It's true -- Jay-Z scored the movie, which features contributions from Beyonce to Nero, none of whom have much business being in a movie set in the Roaring Twenties. Except they sort of do: With one notable (and hilarious) exception, the music works in great concert with the film's narrative. When listened to as a standalone stream on NPR, the electronic dance music and hip-hop elements in the soundtrack are far more removed from the movie's subject than they are when used in the film. Lana Del Rey, Beyonce and Florence Welch's songs are used tenderly, and Emeli Sande's take on "Crazy in Love" is perfect, too. The singers Jay-Z assembled bent their talents to the movie's mood; denying their place in the movie is almost as stupid as saying Carey Mulligan can't play Daisy Buchanan because she's an English actress.
Put another way: If you want to watch a historically accurate period piece, don't buy tickets to a Baz Lurhmann movie. (It's worth noting that, in 1996, Lurhmann was lavished with praise for his "relentlessly inventive and innovative" modernization of "Romeo + Juliet.") Complaining about historical accuracy in a Luhrmann movie is like not being able to appreciate the entertainment value of an Onion article because it's "not really true."
The first half is more fun than the second half.
This one really takes the cake. Yes, Lurhmann's trailers promise a slick, non-stop party and the movie's party scenes are particularly well tailored, but "The Great Gatsby" is ultimately a wholly depressing affair. The second act of the novel is a slow, aching arch toward utter despair, culminating in one intense sequence with approximately two twists. My colleague and HuffPost's Senior Entertainment Writer Mike Ryan wrote that Luhrmann abandons the pomp of the first act halfway through "and tries to become something that resembles a faithful adaptation," but I'd argue that the movie is actually shockingly faithful all throughout. Once the lights shut off in Gatsby's mansion, it's imperative that the story feels like a new movie, because it is. Until that point, Gatsby's world was solely one of aspiration and imagination. Now that he has once again seen Daisy in the flesh and the challenges that await each of then have been made tangible, things are different. If you leave "Gatsby" feeling dejected, as I did, Lurhmann has been faithful to Fitzgerald's book.
The movie has "no soul," and it's in 3-D.
The Associated Press' Christy Lemire wrote that the movie is "all sparkle" (perhaps she missed the hour that Mr. Ryan found so boring?) and that Luhrmann's decision to include actual words on the screen and film in 3-D make the movie even more lacking in "soul." I'll freely admit that this movie doesn't need to be in 3-D, though the treatment is brighter and more clear than most recent blockbusters. But there's a simple solution for those who don't like their Gatsby in 3-D: Watch it in 2-D. The words and phrases that appear on screen can just as easily be seen as proof that Lurhmann respects the text and believes in the strength of Fitzgerald's famously powerful sentences. (This also happens twice, and one instance features the book's final sentence, one of the most respected endings in American literature.)
All of this is not to say the book is without flaws. Gatsby's origin story is curiously repeated and some of the performances seem a tad off kilter. But as the New York Post's Lou Lemenick smartly wrote, Lurhmann's take on James Gatz is "a movie that may not be truly great but certainly stands out like a beacon in a sea of silly blockbusters." The problem with reviews of the movie isn't that they dare find fault in the Luhrmann's ambition, but that they're unreasonably harsh.
It seems we've been conditioned to see witty superhero franchises and overbearing "art films" as surefire pathways to critical appreciation, particularly in the summer. Make a movie that dares blend fun with some heavy, famous fiction? You're out of luck, old sport.