I’ve no clue why anyone thought of turning F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby into something that might better be called Hip Hop in the Hamptons. Perhaps director and co-writer Christopher Scott Cherot thought that since no one had made a really successful film of the novel by approaching it in a straight manner (though Jack Clayton got nearer than is generally allowed), a new spin might make it work. It doesn’t.
His film starts out by seeming to follow the basic outline of the book, with the Gatsby character (here called Summer G and played by Richard T. Jones) trying to reconnect with his lost love (here named Sky and played by Chenoa Maxwell). It includes a slightly abusive, cheating husband (Blair Underwood) for Sky. And it even has a writer character (Andre Royo) to observe the proceedings — only he doesn’t really do that and is used more as a plot device — an alteration that suggests that no one involved has much of a grasp on the novel.
Watching the more or less intact plot move from point to point as it reshapes Fitzgerald’s 1920s in hip-hop terms, it’s hard to see the purpose of the whole exercise. Reworking the story with a hip-hop record mogul at its center comes across as little more than a stunt. Nothing about the approach adds any richness to what finally emerges as a terribly trite story by the end of it all.
And it’s not a very good stunt either. Apart from a surface rendering of something like the lifestyle of Sean Combs/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy, there’s precious little hip hop involved. As a result, even the hip hop aspect is … guess what? Yep. A stunt.
At first, there’s a sense that some cliches are going to be broken. The character of Summer G — and even the world he inhabits — is about as far removed from the stock view of the rap/hip-hop world as can be imagined. As played (quite well) by Richard T. Jones, G is sophisticated, erudite and well-spoken — in other words, nothing like Snoop Dogg or Eminem. In fact, when the script makes half-hearted attempts at tossing him a few bits of “gangsta” speak, the effect is distractingly like watching Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson as classically trained actors trying to pass themselves off as examples of “Thug Life” in Malibu’s Most Wanted.
Whatever freshness might have come from this approach, however, is lost in the fact that all G’s hangers-on, stars and would-be stars have inherited every cliche in the book — encapsulated in one ridiculous scene where a group of them take off in search of 40s, Newport cigarettes and McDonald’s! By this point, the film is verging on offensive, and while it never gets any worse, neither does it get much better.
Somewhere around the two-third mark, G almost completely abandons its literary model, losing what structure it had and short-circuiting in a frankly confusing barrage of subplots that lead to an absurdly altered conclusion. If there was ever any doubt that Cherot had only the most tenuous grasp on what the novel was about, the mess of an ending proves it.
I don’t mind that it departs from the novel — lots of movies have done that and still captured the essence of the source, or at least altered their source with something that worked and didn’t utterly betray it. G can’t pull off either feat — and doesn’t make much sense in the bargain. The great pity in all this is that the actors are good and try their damndest to make it all work, but the screenplay won’t let them, instead insisting that they trudge through a plot that undermines any attempt at characterization.
Go read the book or see the 1974 Jack Clayton version. It will be time better spent. Rated R.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke