Christopher Scott Cherot’s “G” is less an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” than a reimagining of it. And it’s that loosening of the literary bonds that frees it from a text that has hamstrung so many past cinematic attempts to tell a story that is fundamentally about emptiness. Literary purists be damned, Cherot — who previously wrote, directed and starred in the charming and bittersweet “Hav Plenty” — has done something very clever here (not unlike Michael Almereyda’s radical upending of “Hamlet” a few years ago), invoking “Gatsby’s” essence while crafting a handsome, compelling drama, about the African-American elite settling in the Hamptons, that more than stands on its own. Strong niche biz with crossover potential seems likely in the hands of the right distrib.
The movie’s tagline — as well as a constant, rhetorical refrain in pic itself — is: “Does hip-hop have heart?” But that’s more of a clever catchphrase than a real subject of interest for “G,” which takes the rap and hip-hop music scenes as its backdrop, but grafts onto them a pungent study of class and racial tension among the upper echelons of black society.
Pic begins with the arrival of journalist Tre (Andre Royo) at the summer home of his cousin Sky (Chenoa Maxwell) and her stockbroker husband, Chip (Blair Underwood). Tre is on assignment to write a profile of the Sean Combs-esque hip-hop magnate Summer G (Richard T. Jones), who has just purchased a nearby palatial estate, where life seems to be a nonstop party.
Because this channels (at least in part) “Gatsby,” it follows that Sky and Summer G once were in love, unbeknownst to Chip. And like the novel, “G” is the story of a man (Summer G) impossibly reaching into the past to win back that love — the way he has built up his entire business (a recording empire) merely as a way of providing for her, how she is everything to him and he nothing without her.
Indeed, Cherot uses Fitzgerald’s general template, but doesn’t press the connections. (He even gives us a character named Daizy, who has nothing to do with the book’s Daisy, as a way of pointing up his textual infidelity.) Rather, he streamlines the narrative, dropping numerous secondary characters. Cherot fleshes out the central romantic triangle with imaginative details, particularly concerning Sky and Summer G’s past together.
Working from his own script (co-authored by Charles E. Drew Jr. and based on a story by Drew and producer Andrew Lauren), Cherot occasionally loses his way. There are a few too many broad, slapsticky situations used to illustrate the shifting racial demographics of the Hamptons (particularly a scene involving an interracial couple at a gas station), and in pic’s second half, there’s a dangerous veering into domestic-yuppie-thriller territory, as Chip discovers the Sky-Summer G liaison and plots his revenge.
“Gatsby” or no “Gatsby,” “G” comes up a bit short on dramatic weight, but Cherot’s cast is so adept and his handling of them so assured that a great many of the movie’s rough edges are filed down. Jones (best known for his leading role in “The Wood”) is powerful as Summer G, and Maxwell, whose eyes seem lost in a reverie, is everything other cinematic Daisys (particularly Mia Farrow’s in the 1974 production) haven’t been. Underwood and Royo also are excellent.
Shot at perfectly suited locations, pic’s production values — including Bill Conti’s solemn score and Horacio Marquinez’s sun-washed widescreen lensing — are a great leap past Cherot’s micro-budget debut; it’s clear he’s grown more confident behind the camera now that he’s no longer in front of it.