Last week, the fifth film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby hit the big screen. Because we thought our fellow bluestockings might be on the fence about it, one of our reviewers agreed to take one for the Bas Bleu team: After rereading the novel, she headed to the theater to check out the movie and report back to us. Here’s what she had to say:
When I learned that Australian director Baz Luhrmann was tackling The Great Gatsby, I was cautiously optimistic. Luhrmann is known for such flamboyant, candy-colored spectacles as Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! If anyone can capture the champagne-soaked excesses of the Roaring Twenties, it’s this guy. But would his gleeful lack of subtlety be too much for the beloved American classic, a devastating takedown of American greed and snobbery that clocks in at just over 47,000 words?
Plotwise, Luhrmann hews closely to Fitzgerald’s story. It’s risky to mess with such a well-known tale, especially one so chiseled as this. Unfortunately, one of the film’s few—and most glaring—deviations from the novel’s plot is its first scene: When moviegoers first meet narrator Nick Carraway, he is languishing in a sanitarium, committed for alcoholism and anxiety in the wake of that fateful summer of 1922. Encouraged to write down his memories by the aptly named Dr. Perkins (a tip of the hat to Fitzgerald’s longtime editor, Max Perkins), Nick guides us back to the green light at the end of the dock.
Through Luhrmann’s lens, New York is a madly spinning kaleidoscope of flappers, booze, and soaring stocks. But while Manhattan captures the excitement of boomtown America, it is on “that slender riotous island” twenty miles east of the city, home to Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the mysterious Jay Gatsby, that the real action unfolds. Here everything is too big, too fast, too bright—and that’s the point. Untold wealth presents a feast for the senses, stuffed with luscious colors, glittering jewels, exaggerated movement, and a throbbing, contemporary musical score. When Nick ventures to one of Gatsby’s infamous parties, “where he dispensed starlight to casual moths,” Luhrmann pulls out all the stops, unleashing a sumptuous explosion of drunken revelry where beautiful people chase pleasure with every drink, every dance, every kiss. And there in their midst, against a sparkling backdrop of fireworks, we finally meet the man of the hour.
Tanned and tuxedoed to perfection, former teen idol and three-time Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is all deft golden charm. The baby face that launched a thousand crushes has weathered into manhood, rendering his lovelorn millionaire “an elegant young rough-neck…whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” Yet what Fitzgerald paints as earnest single-mindedness skews towards violent intensity in DiCaprio’s hands, culminating in a Scorsese-like outburst that is a sharp departure from the novel’s carefully leashed anti-hero.
Similarly, Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is satisfying, if not entirely on point. The gifted actress brings her trademark blend of naïveté and allure to Gatsby’s lost love, delicately capturing her “sad and lovely [face] with bright things in it.” But Mulligan fails to incorporate Daisy’s intrinsic carelessness or her disregard for the devastating effect her decisions—or, rather, indecisions—have on others.
Perhaps the least-known of the four leads, Australian Joel Edgerton earned my pick for Best Casting with his bravura performance, playing Tom Buchanan as a brutishly handsome bully who somehow manages to be the smartest guy in the room. No one knows better than he that his old money and pedigree give him carte blanche to live as selfishly and as violently as he damn well pleases, a protection the newly minted Gatsby will never achieve.
Unfortunately, Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway isn’t as successful. As narrators go, Nick is one of the best in literature: insightful, ever-watchful, yet invisible in our mind’s eye. Fitzgerald offers no physical description, allowing Nick to vanish in every crowd and observe life unseen on our behalf. The mere act of putting a face to the name feels like too much. It’s one of the few instances in which the widely panned 1974 adaptation trumps Luhrmann’s efforts: Understated Everyman Sam Waterston eclipses the boyishly wide-eyed Maguire.
Casting aside, perhaps Luhrmann’s greatest struggle for subtlety lies in knowing when he’s tipped the scale too far. The director has a gift for madcap comedy (see: Strictly Ballroom, right now). Yet Fitzgerald’s brand of satire isn’t so much “ha-ha, funny” as it is “by God, look at yourselves.” Sometimes Luhrmann misses that mark, caught up in the ebullience of the scene he’s setting.
Time and again, The Great Gatsby has been declared unfilmable—but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from trying. In this instance, I hoped for the best and prepared for the worst. Neither happened. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised, occasionally annoyed, and ultimately entertained. The woman beside me was riveted when Gatsby “turned out all right at the end,” leaning forward in her seat, elbows on her knees, hands pressed to her mouth in the darkness. And here I am still thinking about it all three days later.
Perhaps in judging any film adaptation of a literary classic, we would do well to remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s warning about burnishing a legend:
“Daisy tumbled short in his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself at it with creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.”