(2013) Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Adelaide Clemens, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan, Gus Murray, Kate Mulvany, Barry Otto, Daniel Gill, Iota, Eden Falk, Steve Bisley, Vince Colosimo, Max Cullen, Gemma Ward, Olga Miller. Directed by Baz Luhrmann
The Jazz Age of the Roaring ’20s was known for conspicuous wealth and the wealthy who partied capriciously even as a stock market crash loomed ever closer. It was an age of the flapper, of gangsters and bootleggers, of old money sneering at the nouveau riche with all the venom of an aging viper whose territory is being taken over by a younger and deadlier snake.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what is arguably his masterpiece in 1925 to tepid sales and lackluster reviews. When he passed away in 1940, he believed himself to be a failure although ironically his work would receive the acclaim and sales only a few years later. ‘Tis the melancholy truth about artists – most have to die in order for their work to matter.
So what’s so great about Gatsby? Well, a lot of things – it’s depiction of the lavish excesses and the empty morality of the very rich, but also the language. Few understood the American idiom quite as well as Fitzgerald and the words truly flow beautifully off the page. Read it aloud and you might think you’re delivering the words of an American Shakespeare into the ether. That is, perhaps, overpraising the work but many consider it to be the Great American Novel and if not that, at least the Great American Tragedy.
Given the lavish excess of the book, Australian director Baz Luhrmann might well be the perfect choice to make the film version. Three others have preceded it – a 1926 silent version which sadly has been lost to the mists of time as no prints are known to exist, although a trailer for it does and if you look it up on YouTube, you can see it. Another version was filmed in 1949 starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field but has been held up for 60 years over mysterious copyright litigation which someone needs to sort out. The most famous version is the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version which famously flopped and has been disowned by nearly everyone involved (there was also a made for television version in 2000).
However, this one is the only one that I am aware of that is available in grand and glorious 3D. Why is it available in such a format, you might ask? So that the glitter and confetti from the various parties might seem to pop out of the screen at you. Otherwise there really is no particular necessity for it.
The film follows the book pretty faithfully – surprisingly so. Midwesterner Nick Carroway (Maguire) moves into a carriage house in the fictional Long Island community of West Egg on the grounds of the fabulous mansion of Jay Gatsby (di Caprio), a reclusive sort who throws lavish parties for which everyone who is anyone shows up at uninvited and about whom all sorts of rumors are floating about.
Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan) lives across the bay – in fact directly across from Gatsby’s mansion – with her philandering husband Tom (Edgerton), an old money sort who is a racist jerk who makes Daisy’s life miserable. Tom inexplicably bonds with Nick and takes him to visit his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Fisher), a clingy shrewish sort who is married to George (Clarke), an auto mechanic who is somewhat slavishly devoted to Myrtle and treats Tom, whose cars he repairs, as something like a potentate.
But Daisy has a secret of her own; prior to meeting Tom she was courted by Jay Gatsby, then an officer in the Army preparing to be deployed into the Great War. By the time he returned, she was married to Tom. Gatsby then set to amassing a fortune by as it turned out fairly nefarious means, utilizing underworld businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Bachchan) as a go-between.
Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy over for tea which he does; Nick genuinely likes Gatsby whose optimism appeals to Nick’s sensibilities. Once Daisy and Gatsby are together it’s like a flickering torch reignited. The two realize they are meant for each other. Gatsby urges Daisy to tell Tom that she doesn’t love him. Daisy is extremely reluctant, although it’s true. This will lead to a confrontation in the Plaza Hotel in New York that will have deadly consequences.
Luhrmann is known for visual spectacle and for thinking outside the box. He frames the story with Nick in his later years committed to a sanitarium for alcoholism, writing down the events of his youth as a means of therapy ordered by his doctor (Thompson). Fitzgerald’s words literally flow into the film as 3D graphics. It’s a nice conceit.
Luhrmann is also known for willful anachronisms – filming period films with a modern soundtrack (which includes songs by Lana del Rey, Jay Z – who supervised the soundtrack – and Andre 3000, among others) which as a personal note drives me entirely crazy. Why go to the trouble of meticulously re-creating an era which Luhrmann does and then immediately take his audience right out of it by having a jazz orchestra rapping? Methinks that Luhrmann doesn’t care if his audience is immersed in the film or not as long as they know who directed it.
Gatsby is one of the most enigmatic literary characters of the 20th century and is a notorious part to get down properly. He is a driven soul, passionate in his feelings for Daisy but absolutely amoral when it comes to money. He is a self-made man, largely willing his own image of himself into reality only to come to understand too late that these things are illusions that are ultimately empty reflections in a mirror that we can’t see. Di Caprio once again reminds us that he is a powerful actor capable of mesmerizing performances at any given time. This is certainly one of his better works, capturing that enigma that is Gatsby and giving it flesh and soul.
Nick is our surrogate, floating in a world of wealth and privilege with eyes wide open. He joins in on the debauchery and recoils in horror as it turns savagely on itself. He watches the events unfold towards their inevitable conclusion and manages to retain his own humanity. He is a decent sort who is thoroughly capable of being corrupted – and to an extent he is – but in the end it’s his own decency that saves him. Maguire is particularly adept at radiating decency and does so here. He’s not particularly memorable – he was never going to be in this kind of role and opposite di Caprio – but he does everything you could ask of him here.
Mulligan, who burst onto the scene not long ago with an amazing performance in An Education has continued to blossom as an actress since then. This is not really a role she’s well-suited for; Daisy is a self-centered and vacuous soul who doesn’t have the courage of her own convictions. Mulligan is far too intelligent an actress to play vacuous and thus she isn’t terribly convincing in the role. Nicole Kidman might have been a better choice and she’s closer to di Caprio’s age range to boot.
There is a lot of spectacle here but sadly it is sabotaged by Luhrmann’s own imagination, which is kind of ironic. Spectacle for spectacle’s sake, as Jay Gatsby would surely have known, is an ultimately empty gesture. There is plenty here to like but one gets too distracted by the fluff. Brevity is the soul of wit and Fitzgerald was fully aware of how to use language economically. So too, simplicity is the soul of film and that is a lesson Luhrmann has yet to learn.
REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio delivers another bravura performance. Captures the era in many ways. Follows Fitzgerald’s story surprisingly closely.
REASONS TO STAY: Far too many instances of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing.” Afflicted with the Curse of the Deliberate Anachronism.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent images (although none especially shocking), some sensuality, partying and smoking within a historical context and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duesenbergs are the automobile of choice for Jay Gatsby but the real things are far too rare and valuable to be used as movie props. The one you see in the film is one of two replicas, each painted yellow and modified to match each other for filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; critics were pretty much split right down the middle on this one.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Iceman