I'm Half Crazy All for the Love of You....
"There are no second acts in American lives"
F. Scott Fitzgerald
There have been several versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great American Novel that have hit the big screen since the novel was first published in 1925, and nobody seems to get it right, if "right" can be got at all. There's a "lost" silent version with Warner Baxter, a 1949 version adapted by Richard Maibaum with Alan Ladd, that emphasized Gatsby's gangster roots, the Robert Evans vanity production of 1974 with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, directed bloodlessly by Jack Clayton. It's a challenge to produce such a tragedy that has a boisterous first act, and such a downer of a second, but that is what makes it so special, and so American. In fact, the best version must be taken out of the novel, which was written in the midst of the period in which it was set, and take into account future events—the stock market crash in 1929 and the following "Great Depression," which sounded the death-knell for The Jazz Age with a long sustained flat note. Fitzgerald's prescient, cautionary novel proved historically accurate with 20/20 foresight to the extent that you cannot make a movie of it unironically, given the past that was its future, and you cannot make a complete movie of it while remaining blind to what it did not foresee in reality, but captured artistically and thematically.
Baz Luhrman's version of The Great Gatsby jumps into that irony with both feet and splashes around in it, kicking and squealing like a child drunk with a secret. It was a weird decision to film it in 3-D, but given the way Luhrman uses it, in vivid eye-popping colors, emphasizing the swoop of camera moves and the solidness of glass partitions, and the illusion of the reflections shimmering over it—and particularly in how he photographs our last views of East Egg, in a way that rather lovingly visualizes the novel's last line ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past")—one begins to wonder any other way to do it.* In a way, the movie feels like one big "Vertigo zoom" in three-dimensions, starting with an art-deco pattern that falls away to the production company logos and ending with an unfamiliar one—until you see it pop up again in Jay Gatsby's monograms.
Then, we begin the touchstones, green light on the dock, the Egg's, the parties, the shirts, the infidelities, "the man who fixed the 1919 World Series," Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Oculist (correctly spelled this time), the fights, all done in Luhrman's hyper-speed (which is maintained throughout, as opposed to his previous film Australia, which flagged after the first 45 minutes), in a style somewhere between Preston Sturges, Sam Raimi, and Tex Avery, making the performances somewhat inconsistent (but more on that later). The swooping, veering style allows for some fore-shadowing plummets down skyscrapers and serves as a visual counter-point to Jay-Z's thumping, pumping soundtrack, which is surprisingly synchronous, although slightly discordant and certainly anachronistic.
|"One big 'Vertigo' zoom"|
Even that is a little problematic, as you can't believe those words and that phrasing is coming out of McGuire's googly-eyed Candide in this version—Sam Waterston's Nick in the '74 vintage and even Paul Rudd's in the 2000 BBC take, both have the mature feel for Carraway's observer/muse/co-dependent enabler. It's a miscalculation, but not due to the casting of McGuire, so much as Luhrman's ADD approach to direction. DiCaprio's Gatsby is prone to such inconsistency as well. After establishing Gatsby as a figure of extravagant mystery and a certain false style, Luhrman has him marching up to Nick's cottage, servants in line behind, an image that recalls a parade. It brings a laugh, but is far too comic for the character. Sure, he's nervous, anticipating the forthcoming tea, and he's slightly out of his element. But the effect takes away from all aspects of the character, even though it plays into Gatsby's too-romantic notions of reclaiming his past. Nor does it help that DiCaprio still looks like a boy-child here.
But where the casting falls off the most is Carey Mulligan as Gatsby's lost-love, Daisy Buchanan, the instrument of his downfall. It's a tough character to cast, as difficult as Gone with the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara, seemingly worldly-wise (but actually sheltered), and fatally shallow, selfish in the moment, and murderously practical in the long run. She needs to be someone who can dash all hopes by merely averting her gaze, and fascinating enough to attract it. And she has to evoke some sympathy for her acts, despite her flaws. As good an actress as Mulligan is (and has been) her Daisy comes across, finally, unknowable and not interesting enough to be an object of obsession, as she must be for the whole tale to work. In fact, it would be tough to think of a modern actress who could be so cool in her actions, and attractive to risk everything for. Stanwyck could do it, and Hepburn (Katherine), but it would take a full infusion of actorly personality to pull off. With Mulligan, there's no spider's web of promise, only a longing weakness, around which the story can revolve. And at the pace Luhrman spins the film, that character needs to have a substantial spine to keep it from flying apart.
It's not there. There is substantial spectacle and evocation of the times, but the people caught in it cannot hold the thing together. It's just another variation of the theme. As such, it's an interesting, but not a great "Gatsby."
The Great Gatsby (2013) is a Rental.
* The 3-D also helps the special effects, which, in Luhrman's vision of things have a distant postcard version of things and see quite a bit distanced from the real live action going on out front. In fact, I imagine the film looking pretty crummy in 2-D, especially in the shots where the large estates look like models.