Review by Pamela Zoslov
It's easy to feel protective about Fitzgerald, a writer too fragile to live very long. I was dismayed in 2008 that a delicate short story like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” had been inflated by David Fincher into a massive special-effects epic. Gatsby occupies an even more special place in American literature. Familiar to every schoolchild, it has been called the “great” novel everyone has read, in comparison to Ulysses, the “great” novel no one has read.
Gatsby is also famously difficult to adapt to the screen. The first Gatsby film, apart from a forgotten silent, was a bland affair in 1949 starring Alan Ladd. The second, in 1974, was a dull, plushy disaster starring Robert Redford. The book, an interior reminiscence of Gatsby and his milieu by Nick Carraway, may be impossible to capture outside of the covers of a book, since so much of its meaning depends on the writing. Truman Capote, hired to write the scenario for the '74 film, complained that the story was too elusive to adapt to the screen. According to Truman's biographer, Gerald Clarke, Fitzgerald himself, working in Hollywood, had similar difficulties adapting novels. “It's all beautiful when you read it,” Fitzgerald said, “but when you write it down plain, it's like a week in the nuthouse.” Capote's screenplay was rejected by the studios-- strangely for being “just like the book” -- and Francis Ford Coppola got the job.
It is one thing, for example, for Fitzgerald to describe Gatsby as having “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.” It is quite another to see Gatsby in the person of a goofily grinning Leonardo DiCaprio, set heroically against a sky filled with fireworks, accompanied the swelling orchestration of Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue.” This is meant to be impressive, but the effect is merely comical. I don't know what it is that makes casting directors continue to hire DiCaprio, whose juvenile looks never satisfactorily matured into adulthood, in period roles that require him to impersonate formidable historical figures (Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover). His face in no way suggests the handsome would-be aristocrat Jay Gatsby, and because the plot turns on Gatsby's magnetic appeal to the narrator, Nick Carraway, and Gatsby's lost love Daisy Buchanan, that is a critical flaw. (The less said about DiCaprio's lamentable accent, “Old Sport,” the better.)
It's the casting, surprisingly, not Luhrmann's grandiosity, that is the petard on which this Gatsby is hoist. Some roles are better cast. Tobey Maguire makes an acceptable Nick Carraway, far more attractive than Sam Waterston in the 1974 film; his reading of Fitzgerald's prose in the voiceover narration is particularly agreeable. Australian actor Joel Edgerton sinks his teeth into the part of Daisy's husband Tom Buchanan. His spirited embrace of the role makes the bigoted, swaggering philanderer the film's most sympathetic character. This cannot have been Fitzgerald's intent.
Luhrmann's GATSBY is a little schizoid, on the one side unusually faithful to Fitzgerald's text, and on the other all flash and showmanship. Luhrmann and his co-scenarist, Craig Pearce, have such high regard for Fitzgerald's prose that they've incorporated the very words into the film's 3D design. The words float across the screen as Carraway writes them, and hover before our eyes that we might savor them. A nice touch, and one of this film's interesting uses of the generally supererogatory 3D medium.
The script introduces as a framing device the idea that Nick, several years after the events in the novel, has retired, not, as in the book, to the Midwest where he was raised, but to a sanitarium following an alcoholic breakdown (or “crack-up,” Luhrmann explained in a recent interview, borrowing the title of Fitzgerald's book based on his own breakdown). The device allows Nick to tell a listener, the psychiatrist, his recollections about Gatsby. The psychiatrist suggests that Nick, who has told him of his collegiate literary aspirations, write it all down. It's a clever way of turning a first-person narrative into drama, with the narration maintained throughout the film, preserving Fitzgerald's exquisite poetic descriptions.
The movie works best when Fitzgerald's words and the often stunning visual collages and montages are front and center. But when Luhrmann's predilection for excess takes over, things are bigger, louder and depressingly literal. So we have not just the suggestion, as in the book, of Gatsby and Daisy's affair, but a scene showing them cavorting in bed. And when Gatsby, nervously meeting Daisy at Nick's house, awkwardly knocks over a clock, in the book it echoes his naïve belief that it's possible to stop time and re-create the past. When DiCaprio does it, he just looks like a klutz. Then there's Gatsby's gleaming West Egg estate, site of all those lavish, decadent parties. In this movie, it's not just a big mansion, it's a gargantuan, digitally created palace in the sky. And rather than just telling us, as in the novel, of the death of Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), we actually see her smashed hideously against the windshield of Gatsby's speeding yellow car (a Duesenberg rather than the Rolls Royce of the novel).
DiCaprio, a shade too old for the role, is an uncomfortable fit for Fitzgerald's wistful dreamer and self-invented aristocrat, about whom Nick says, “there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life...an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” This movie Gatsby's dashed hopes do not evoke sadness or pity, because he is a cardboard figure. (Carey Mulligan, similarly, is too coarse to embody the gossamer Daisy.) Nick is ambivalent about Gatsby, seeing in his romantic visions and their destruction the trajectory of the American dream, a boat crushed against the rocks of greed and corruption, as well as by selfish rich people like Tom and Daisy. As in the book, the film has Nick telling Gatsby, who gallantly tries to protect Daisy from the consequences of her destructiveness, that he's better than people like the Buchanans. But he doesn't seem particularly noble, he just seems like a nitwit. DiCaprio to one side, is there anyone who could successfully incarnate Gatsby? Or is Jay Gatsby best left a figure of the imagination?
Strangely, the elements of this movie that portended disaster, like the effects-laden, orgiastic party sequences (confetti and streamers seem to fall onto the audience), gyrating dancers and Jay- Z's contemporary music, are fairly palatable, as are the gleaming cinematography and the delectable 3D visual effects incorporating newsreel-style period footage and attractive sepia-toned flashbacks. Though often in questionable taste, Luhrmann's extravagant spectacle adds a mythic dimension to Nick's recollections, which makes sense because Gatsby, though disgraced, is idealized in Nick's memory.
Every generation gets the Gatsby it deserves, and Luhrmann's top-heavy, flashy digitalized spectacle is suitably aimed at attention-challenged , sensation-seeking millennials. Its saving grace is its unexpected reverence for the written word. 2 and 3/4 stars out of 4.