In between acting, directing, and producing movies, traveling the world, getting a phD from Yale, and bashing old films he appeared in, James Franco found time this week to add another title to his already enormous resume: film critic. Putting all those NYU film studies classes to good use, Franco filed 900 words — “A Few Impressions,” as he put it — on Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” You can read his critique at Vice, including this particularly juicy section where he takes issue with other critics’ reviews of the movie:
“The critics who’ve ravaged the film for not being loyal to the book are hypocrites. These people make their living doing readings and critiques of texts in order to generate theories of varying levels of competency, or simply to make a living. Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text — his critique, if you will. Would anyone object to a production of ‘Hamlet’ in outer space? Not as much as they object to the ‘Gatsby’ adaptation, apparently. Maybe that’s because ‘Gatsby’ is so much about a time and a place, while Shakespeare, in my mind, is more about universal ideas, ideals, and feelings. Luhrmann needed to breathe life into the ephemera and aura of the 20s and that’s just what he succeeded at.”
Generally I’m not sure a critic needs to spend so much of his time criticizing the reviews of others (unless that critic is me, and he has an entire blog basically devoted to doing that). I also think that in spite of his modern innovations — Jay-Z-selected hip hop, 3D digital photography — Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” is actually a relatively faithful adaptation. He didn’t make any radical changes to the storyline and he kept quite a lot of Fitzgerald’s prose in the form of a voiceover narration read, with frustratingly little flavor, by Tobey Maguire. Stereoscopic flash aside, Luhrmann kept things fairly on message.
But that’s not me disagreeing with Franco — that’s me disagreeing with critics who complain the film isn’t loyal to the book. Franco actually does a pretty respectable job reviewing the movie. I’m with him on his theory of adaptation, too; the way to make a good adaptation is to make a good movie. When you worry about translating the book “correctly,” you put the book ahead of the film. Plus the stuff that makes the book special — prose, length, themes — often doesn’t translate well to the screen. When you transcribe a great novel beat for beat, line by line and call it a movie the only people you serve are high school students looking to cram for a test without doing their homework. So, yes: don’t give me F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby,” give me Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” For better or worse.
Franco also makes some perceptive observations about the film itself, particularly regarding the problematic portrayal of Nick Carraway, who is so emotionally devastated by Gatsby’s fate that he’s living in a sanitarium despite the fact that he seemingly knew Gatsby for a relatively short amount of time (and knew him to be not quite as thoroughly, uh, great as his title would have us believe). I’m a little disappointed he didn’t make the connection that many others have drawn between his performance as Alien in “Spring Breakers,” in the instant classic scene where he screams “Look at my shit!” as he shows off his dark tanning oil and shorts in every color to his “soul mates,” and Leonardo DiCaprio’s in the scene where he showers Daisy (Carey Mulligan) with the contents of his enormous, two-story closet. Still, it’s not a bad piece. If acting, directing, producing, traveling, hosting the Oscars, and curing various communicable diseases doesn’t work out, Franco might have a real future in criticism. It would certainly be the most lucrative and safe of all his many projects.
Read more of “‘Gatsby:’ A Few Impressions.”