It says a lot that the launch date of this Gatsby was repeatedly put back by the studio, a sure sign that they expected it to dive bomb at the box office on the strength of bad feedback at test screenings, maybe some reshooting and re-editing, plus whatever other remake/remodel jobs they undertook to reposition the movie. But I will come to that later.
First, let’s position this version in terms of the history of Gatsbys. In all, F Scott Fitzgerald‘s classic novel The Great Gatsby has been brought to the big screen no fewer than six times, including a TV movie, plus a full-scale operatic rendition, which in my opinion is testament to the deceptively complex and superficially charismatic nature of the source material, such that film-makers believe it stands further reinterpretation. Also in my humble opinion, there are essential three ways in which it can be adapted for the screen:
- Innocently following the essence of the story (given that novels always trim back the actual events described) straight and without an agenda
- A very loose “based on” version, applying layers of lavish but vacuous glitz and glamour, style over substance
- Knowingly retelling the story as a sly allegory to place it in the context of the author and his motivations (of which more shortly.)
Sad to say, under Baz Luhrmann‘s stewardship it was always likely to be nearer the second version than either of the other two, Luhrmann being big on shallow razzamatazz in all his oeuvre. Maybe it is an opportunity lost that in wiser hands might have been both a much better movie, or at least to have said much more to say about the novel, the characters and the context; but sure enough, having selected a director/co-writer into making flash harry films, this is a flash harry sort of adaptation. On its own, a touch of swagger and panache is not necessarily bad, but there are far worse sins. As a friend puts it this is a movie has, like many before it, been sanitised by Hollywood.
Chief among these is the fact that the main protagonist, Nick Carraway, is a thinly-veiled version of Fitzgerald himself. The severe alcoholism (which contributed to Fitzgerald’s death at the live-fast-die-young age of 44) is portrayed, since the entire plot and flashback depends on Carraway being in a sanatorium and telling the history of his liaison with Gatsby in hindsight, but every whiff of Fitzgerald’s closet homosexuality and self-loathing, and the character’s unrequited love for the elusive Gatsby (and that was Truman Capote’s analysis), is neatly airbrushed from the movie, which is much the poorer as a result. His devotion is portrayed much more as a loyalty to a friend, thus missing the point.
Yet there is also much of Fitzgerald in Gatsby’s pursuit of the elusive Daisy. Wikipedia:
Many of the events in Fitzgerald’s early life are reflected throughout The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was a young man from Minnesota, and like Nick, he was educated at an Ivy League school (in Nick’s case Yale.) Fitzgerald is also similar to Jay Gatsby, as he fell in love while stationed in the military and fell into a life of decadence trying to prove himself to the girl he loves. Fitzgerald became a second lieutenant, and was stationed at Camp Sheridan, in Montgomery, Alabama. There he met and fell in love with a wild seventeen-year-old beauty named Zelda Sayre. Zelda finally agreed to marry him, but her overpowering desire for wealth, fun, and leisure led her to delay their wedding until he could prove a success. Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found this new lifestyle seductive and exciting, and, like Gatsby, he had always idolized the very rich. In many ways, The Great Gatsby represents Fitzgerald’s attempt to confront his conflicting feelings about the Jazz Age. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald was driven by his love for a woman who symbolized everything he wanted, even as she led him toward everything he despised.
The style and flamboyance comes over big time, though whether Leonardo di Caprio has the presence to match his youth and beauty for the role of Gatsby divided critics. As with his turn as Howard Hughes, he looks stunning but his performance lacks depth or conviction, being founded mostly in beneficent smiles and frowns than providing evidence of inner turmoil or emotional gravitas, let alone being the last bastion of hope, as required by the text. Maybe he is learning greater subtlety with age, not that that was a requirement for either Django Unchained or The Wolf of Wall Street, his best two movies to date, and maybe he is perfectly fitting for Luhrmann’s shallow but stylish view of the world, but as the character Gatsby he is miscast by virtue of lacking mystique or the requisite three dimensions. He would make a splendid cartoon character.
By contrast, Tobey Maguire, late of Sam Raimi‘s Spider-man trilogy, and the now fashionable Carey Mulligan as the ravishing beauty Daisy, married to Gatsby’s rival come across as both competent and talented. Mulligan’s classical training comes to the fore, demonstrating she is an actress capable of understanding tragedy and the true nature of grief. Maguire provides a fine example of the naive but amiable bumbler, a man who loves rubbing shoulders with the mega-wealthy and who dreams of being louche and decadent without ever gaining the wherewithal. In contrast to di Caprio’s Gatsby, you can read his unspoken feelings, even where Luhrmann chooses not to expand on the theme.
In fact, in the context of the film, the cast ensemble actually does pretty well as the beautiful young things and their working class counterparts, though I feel for them having to play second fiddle to the inevitable Luhrmann whizzy special effects and, worse, the use of modern music in a 20s setting. Many of the visual effects add no value whatsoever, and have the effect of distracting the audience from the plot and its significance. Luhrmann could have toned it down considerably and improved his movie in the process, but that is who he is. If you don’t believe me, watch his Moulin Rouge, which features among my worst movies ever by virtue of demonstrating Luhrmann’s ambitions to Greek tragedy and his hotchpotch of a movie are several light years apart.
At least, by comparison, Gatsby warrants a considered opinion, but looking dazzling really is not enough. We need truth and insight to shine through, but on this evidence neither are in the offing. Maybe in 20 years some other director will give us the definitive version of Gatsby? We must wait and see…