The current version of The Great Gatsby is the fifth film version of the iconic American novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1924. There’s no reason to compare this version to the previous films, so I won’t. And no real reason to compare it to the novel. My belief is that a film should stand on its own. Those who have read the book on which a film is based always say the book was better, so we can just leave it at that. If you haven’t read the novel, you should. But in the meantime, the film is clear enough, if not deep enough, so that you can enjoy the film on its own merits.
This version was directed by Mr. Excess himself, Australian director Baz Luhrman, who previously dazzled U.S. audiences with the marvelous over-the-top musical Moulin Rouge! (2001) and his joyously simple debut film Strictly Ballroom (1992). Luhrman uses every visual trick in the movie book in this film, capturing the roaring Twenties in constant movement and glittering hyperactivity. No one in this story drinks, they all drink too much. They don’t dance, they gyrate like Energizer Bunnies. The diamonds are real but the smiles are fake. Everyone’s falling into bed with someone, but hardly anyone has the common courtesy to fall in love first.
The exception is Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the billionaire bootlegger who is besotted with his old flame, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), who, alas, happens to be married to an adulterous rich bore named Tom Buchanan (Aussie-born Joel Edgerton). Daisy and her family–she has a little girl that she never talks about and never sees–live on Long Island, across the bay from the castle belonging to Mr. Gatsby.
As the film opens, it’s summer and Mr. Gatsby is throwing the most fantastical parties the world has seen since the glory days of the Roman Empire–tons of food and rivers of booze, women shimmer in their sparkling dresses, the sky lights up in fireworks. Liaisons are arranged and so are backroom deals, involving everyone’s favorite past time – speculation on the stock market. Corruption peaks out of the dark corners, in the languid grins of government officials drinking illegal hooch and sleazy operators shaking hands. .
Newcomer Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire, real life best friends with Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself living in a small house next door to the Gatsby mansion and observes everything as if he were Gatsby’s personal memoirist. Later, he says of Gatsby, “He was he most hopeful person I ever met.” A set up line for trouble, if there ever was one. The real reason for the parties, we learn, is Gatsby’s hope that Daisy Buchanan might show up one night. Despite all his trappings of luxury, the mysterious billionaire, wants only one thing in life—Daisy Buchanan, whom he had loved five years before in his pre-war innocence.
But Daisy didn’t wait for him to come home after the war. She married Tom instead. And now, in the midst of all her luxury, she’s stuck in a loveless marriage with a man who can’t stop having mistresses. His latest one is wild red-haired Myrtle, (played with lascivious glee by Aussie-raised Isla Fisher), who happens to be married to a dangerously jealous car mechanic (played by yet another Aussie, Jason Clark). Tom drags Nick along on his extramarital adventures and the younger man quickly learns the most effective way to handle the uncomfortable lures and lies of this lifestyle – he just keeps getting drunk. Teasing him but remaining maddening aloof is Daisy’s friend, the beautiful ice princess brunette Jordan Baker, played with scary intensity by Elizabeth Debicki, from Australia.
The soundtrack is contemporary, mixing some of today’s most out-there musicians with 20s tunes—surprisingly, and greatly annoying purists, the music works and adds to the film’s wrap-around sensation. The cinematography (Simon Duggan, I, Robot) is wonderful, doing its best to work with the special effects and not have either element dominate. The sets and costumes are sensational—my only complaint about them is that usually the film moves too fast to allow time for the details to sink in – you’d really have to see the film several times, which I’m planning to do, to catch all the wondrous details.
In sum, the film looks incredible. (And you certainly don’t need the 3-D version to give your eyes a feast.) In fact, the look of the film is so incredible that it distracts you for most of the film’s 142 minutes into thinking that all the elements of the film are as good as the look of it. That’s not true. What is true is the across the board critical complaint that the film is a spectacular example of style over substance.
Oh, most of the performances are good enough. DiCaprio is terrific, giving the Gatsby character a sympathetic youthful energy. Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carroway is an appropriate voice of conscience, titillated by the seductions all around him, yet mistrusting them as well. But Carey Mulligan’s Daisy, try as the talented young British actress might, with her off-putting dyed blonde hair, never quite becomes the alluring obsession we expect her to be. It’s as if she’s pouring her heart into a role from another movie and somehow got lost in this one. She does have one of the best lines in the film though. “All the bright precious things fade so fast,” she says, “and they don’t come back.” Kind of sums up the film in her first scene.
The Great Gatsby, despite all its glitter, is an amazingly humorless story, as if tragedy is chasing the love-drunk billionaire like vengeful storm clouds, as if the crazy enthusiasm of stock-happy America is just waiting to collapse. Despite his attempts to live above the lower class from which he truly came, Gatsby is brought down by the unseen ties to his past. Even without humor though, the story is replete with irony. Gatsby, the ruthless businessman, the beneficiary of the underworld of illegal liquor, turns out to be the only character who keeps his moral nobility, even if his hold is tenuous.
In the end, we are watching a fantastically impressive movie about a bunch of people who are essentially unlikable. Equally disconcerting is the fact that the classic American novel is translated into a movie that could be taking any place anywhere on the planet. The film doesn’t create any American-specific location or perspective. What should have been a portrayal about America becomes a fantasy without a country of origin.
This points out, for me, the inherent mistake of this film. It was shot in Australia, directed and, more importantly, written by an Australian, Craig Pearce. Except for DiCaprio and Maguire, all the other leading parts were played by Australians or Brits, not Americans. I’m not an American chauvinist, but I do think all this non-American influence in key elements of the film, worked against a proper translation into film of one of our country’s most important novels.
Bottom line: A magnificent piece of eye-candy but don’t count on seeing an American story.