Baz Luhrmann could learn a thing or two from game designer Ken Levine. For The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann chose to incorporate modern music into the story of the decadent 1920s. He shows party people driving through ye olde decadent New York City blaring Jay Z’s “H to the Izzo” from their non-existent speakers. He captures a night of drugs and drinking with a slow-motion dubstep breakdown. Meanwhile, in Levine’s latest game, Bioshock Infinite, his team at Irrational Games carefully and subtly incorporated modern music into an early 1900s setting without causing an anachronistic aneurysm.
In fact, Bioshock’s floating city in the sky, complete with magic powers and time travel, feels more in touch with its era of choice than The Great Gatsby ever does. Gatsby is brimming with absurd CG zooms around NYC and Long Island. It throws the camera across the bay, zipping from West Egg to East Egg and back only to wow those wearing their 3D glasses. The handful of car chases look preposterous, as the cars drift and turn at impossible, physics defying angles with their little toy people thrown around like fodder in a Lord of the Rings battle. It’s no wonder Tobey Maguire is such a big part of this film, as Peter Parker he seemed at home in worlds mostly made in a computer.
The whole thing is a tasteless grab-bag of word-for-word quotes from the novel mixed with violent displays of artistic license. Baz invents things for the story at the same time he is desperately faithful, he half-captures the look of the era while tossing in top 40 hits, and this goes on unrestricted until Gatsby himself steps into the scene. If you walked out of the theater before Leonardo DiCaprio makes his entrance, I wouldn’t fault you at all. But man, I’ve never seen such an attempt to single-handedly save a film from itself.
Leo is a goddamn force as Gatsby. He plays the part to perfection, even when the script demands that he twist the character slightly. The moment he steps in the film seems to get its act together. It’s as if the cast and crew of Gatsby were a bunch of sugar-fueled elementary school students and DiCaprio was their no-nonsense teacher. It still slips here and there, but the middle chunk of the film is a watchable, decent adaptation of the book. It’s kind of crazy.
As soon as he’s gone from the story Baz is at it again, covering the screen in flashy quotes from the book while inventing new things for Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway to do. The pastiche of over-faithful quotations and modern obnoxiousness is what I’d imagine a Hot Topic line of T-Shirts based on classic literature would look like. There’s only so much a fine actor can do to save that.