F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 to ho-hum reviews, has come over the years to be considered one of the handful of great American novels. Therefore, there’s a certain ring of protection around it that’s been set up by English professors and their ilk to keep it from harm’s way, mostly in film adaptations. There have been six, none of them very good, and the latest, by Baz Luhrmann, continues that streak.
Lurhmann, who is to filmmaking as Gallagher is to comedy, has thrown everything at the screen in his adaptation. He is really one of the worst choices for this material (Michael Bay might be worse–we’d get an explosion then), as the book, only 169 pages of carefully constructed prose, requires someone who is steeped in subtlety, a word Luhrmann doesn’t understand. I can appreciate his attempt–he clearly admires the book, but in his hands it becomes a bombastic and boring spectacle. He may know the words, but he doesn’t know the music.
Speaking of music, I’m one who usually doesn’t care for anachronistic music, and it bristles here. This story is about a particular time–1922, the Jazz Age. There’s not that much jazz in it. We do get Andre 3000, but this is not a story that necessarily works as a cautionary tale about our own time. How about making a movie about these characters in their own time, with her own music? Even when Luhrmann tries to be accurate, he missteps. Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin, heard prominently here, wasn’t composed until two years after the events of the film.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a fellow on the brink of 30 who has moved to New York from the Midwest to become a bond salesman. He rents a house on a shore dotted with mansions in the fictional West Egg, New York (a stand-in for Great Neck). He eventually meets his mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonard DiCaprio), a vital man who seems to have the perfect life. When Gatsby realizes that Carraway’s cousin is Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who lives with her husband in old-money East Egg, just across the bay, he asks Carraway to get them together. It seems that the two were in love five years ago, but were interrupted by World War I.
Daisy’s husband, Tom, a former polo star who is now an angry racist, decides to look into his past, especially his relationship with a “gambler” modeled on Arnold Rothstein. Tom is having an affair with the white trash wife of a garage owner in the Valley of Ash, a destitute patch of ground between the green mansions of Long Island and the bustle of New York City. All things will come to a head, and tragedy ensues.
The novel is about a great many things, primarily about the uncanny ability of Americans to reinvent themselves. Gatsby, who comes from a poor farm in North Dakota, has managed to change himself into millionaire and man about town. The book is also about the struggle between the Midwest, where Fitzgerald came from, and the east of New York. But Luhrmann has boiled it down to a romance between Gatsby and Daisy–”It was all for her,” Carraway says late. While Luhrmann’s script gives lip service to the other themes, he does the book a disservice in the telling.
But what about those who don’t care about the book, and have never read it? I saw a lot of teenage girls in the audience, presumably drawn by DiCaprio. What must they have thought of it? Even if I had been taken to my seat from an alien spacecraft, and had no knowledge of the book, I would thought this to be an unpleasant experience. I’ll steal from another critic who says the movie is “spectacle without soul.” It’s brash, loud, garish (I can only imagine how in-your-face it is in 3D) and often quite boring. The party scenes, which Luhrmann must have imagined first, seem inauthentic and an excuse for Luhrmann’s tendency to show off.
There are some good things about the film. The production design is good, especially the way they have used the oculist billboard, which Fitzgerald wrote into the story after seeing the cover design. I also liked most of the acting. Maguire has a difficult part, but he handles it with aplomb, even though Luhrmann makes a major mistake in framing the story from Carraway’s stay in an asylum–not in the book. Luhrmann seems to think that Carraway was Fitzgerald, and assigns him his alcoholism and writing ability, but this is not true. Carraway was his own character, modeled on no one.
I also like DiCaprio. His introduction, when he smiles just as Carraway describes it, is almost breathtaking, and I never didn’t believe him in the part. I was also admiring of Joel Edgerton as Tom. However, as much as I like Carey Mulligan, I didn’t care for her here. Daisy is a tough character to figure out, but certainly she’s not as vapid as Mulligan plays her. When Mulligan, in pre-release interviews, compared Daisy to a Kardashian, I cringed. Sheesh! Must everything have a contemporary comparison? She’s not like a Kardashian, she’s Daisy Buchanan, who has existed for over eighty years.
I really wanted to like this movie, and was pulling for it early, but by the twenty-minute mark a part of me wanted to leave. Luhrmann makes movies for those with ADHD, and I am not that audience. When he does take a breath, and characters talk, the pacing is deadly, and there’s a lot of watch checking. I did like one thing Luhrmann did–when Gatsby meets Daisy for tea he brings a lot of flowers. A lot of flowers.
My grade for The Great Gatsby: D.