Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby is the only 3D movie that I’ve seen recently that’s worth wearing the glasses for. Many people I talked to wondered why a story focused on self-centered characters spiraling toward the frayed ends of the American dream needed to be in 3D in the first place. But if you’re going to make a movie about excess, why the hell not? And it works. As soon as the gritty black-and-white title sequence ended, and the golden gatework stretched into the blackness, my slight sense of vertigo told me that someone had actually made good use of the medium.
There are many long shots with almost cartoonish layers that provide the same sensation I had with the red viewmaster that I played with as a child. Animated movies work best for 3D, and Gatsby is no exception. But you almost don’t notice since the sets, costumes, and editing are so stylized. In fact, some of the smoother shots are those that are far away. The camera zooms over the bay toward the green light, over the immense grounds of the estates, and over the ash heaps the cars race through to get to New York. This provides a much better feel for the immense world these tiny people are lording over in their various reckless ways.
The pace set in this adaptation does a much better job at capturing the anxiety of the book than the older movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. That version does a great job with the emptiness presented in the novel, but it’s too slow and calm. Luhrman’s quick cuts accompanied by a jittery dialogue capture the feeling described so well by Nick Carraway at that first party in New York when he meets Tom’s mistress, Myrtle: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
Some aspects of the movie do an even better job than the book at showing the world Fitzgerald created, particular the racing cars and the large divide between Long Island and New York with the piles of ash in between looking somewhat like Mordor from Lord of the Rings, only with a pair of glasses on a billboard instead of a fiery eye. This racing around that the characters engage in gives a much better sense that something terrible is going to happen, especially with the near misses on all of the trips prior to the tragic accident at the end that unravels the world Gatsby and the others have created for themselves.
I did not like the cliched treatment of the narrator writing this story for a psychiatrist. When the list of Nick’s ailments were ticked off, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. He wasn’t left a broken man in the book, and you get the sense from the very first line that he has a healthier grasp on reality than any of the people that he meets in this period of his life: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you fell like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'” Immediately, we have the impression that the narrator is a mindful person who’s careful with what he says and does. And we see this played out in the story; or at least, that’s how he presents himself. But instead, we see Toby McGuire’s character of Nick progress through a number of sessions as he comes to grips with the events of that tragic summer.
I just don’t think that a veteran of World War I who has successfully reintegrated into society is going to become completely debilitated by the tragic consequences of some foolish rich people. What’s sadder for him is watching these characters destroy themselves in the attempt to recapture something that was lost years ago. He argues with Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past, and he ends his story with a restatement of that idea and an observation of how it led to Gatsby’s doom. His position hasn’t changed at all from the time he lived through the events to the telling of it, which is much too stable for someone who might be broken up enough to visit a psychiatrist in those days. It seems that Nick’s telling of this story is much more of a cautionary tale than an exploration of his tortured psyche. I can almost imagine him telling this to someone who might remind him of Gatsby’s idealism and where it leads. Or maybe it’s a friend who’s dating a girl as potentially harmful as his cousin Daisy was.
Still, the movie works and does a much better job at getting the feel of the book right, which is generally what you hope for with any adaptation. And if 3D movies don’t give you a headache, this one is definitely worth the extra price of admission.