Silver Screen: The Great Gatsby ****
It’s cliché to gripe that Hollywood ruins great books by tinkering with them too much in the adaptation. It is often true, yet it’s just as easy to make a dull movie by being slavishly devoted to the source material. Jack Clayton’s 1974 version of The Great Gatsby is a perfect example.
The 1974 Great Gatsby rarely deviates from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era-defining novel, and it casts two major actors of the day, Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, in the lead roles. The whole endeavor is sodden and flat. No matter the scene or circumstance, the tone is one fit for a funeral dirge. Redford’s Gatsby isn’t mysterious, he’s distant and unknowable, and it’s near impossible to imagine anyone falling in love with Farrow’s shrill, brittle character. Gatsby’s lavish soirees seem less fun than my wife’s office Christmas party. These 1920s do not roar.
Baz Luhrmann spares no gimmick in his interpretation of this most hallowed English-teacher favorite: anachronistic music thumps heavy basslines at flapper bashes, racial politics are unevenly reconstrued, and the whole production is rendered in the 3D so popular among superhero smashups and animated movies. If you ever found yourself unable to appreciate the themes of this American classic because that little green light didn’t look far enough away, this is the movie for you.
Luhrmann’s innovations are a mixed bag. Both the most interesting and the worst moments of his film stem from his revisions and elaborations. Better that than a stiff staging that adds nothing new. There’s no real need to make a movie of The Great Gatsby-- it’s a brief novel that can be read in just a few hours, renowned not for its fantastical imagery but rather its emotional and intellectual content as well as the beautiful construction of its sentences-- so if it must be made, err on the side of weirdness.
Despite the embellishments he makes to the façade, Luhrmann wisely changes little of the actual story, hewing closely to the novel to the point of lifting the vast majority of the dialogue. Narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), adrift and nearing the end of his youth, takes up residence for a summer on the fictional New York suburb of West Egg. His neighbor is the playboy Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose checkered past and source of present income remain a constant mystery. The guarded Gatsby takes a shine to his new neighbor, but it’s merely a ploy to get close to Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who lives across the bay in East Egg and is married to the brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
It’s all there-- the Valley of Ashes, Owl Eyes staring omnipotently from his billboard perch, the sweltering New York apartment full of liquor bottles beading with condensation on beds of ice. When Carraway makes his entrance for the summer, Luhrmann even follows Fitzgerald’s eye around the room, capturing the billowing curtains and panning up to what Fitzgerald described as “the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling.”
But there’s more here, too, namely an awkward framing sequence in which Carraway has retired to a sanitarium for alcoholism. Luhrmann has absurdly stated that he felt he needed a specific reason for Carraway to relate one of the greatest stories in American literature, so he and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce concoct this ill-advised excuse for the narrator to first verbalize, then eventually type out, his story. This ultimately leads to a bizarre conflation of author and narrator, with Luhrmann positing Carraway not only as a character in The Great Gatsby but as its creator, which the director further confuses by intermingling into Carraway’s narration lines from non-fiction essays by Fitzgerald. In this sense, it’s a tangled mess.
But by and large it is a success, both as a portrait of opulence and an indulgence in opulence itself. Luhrmann’s colorful, carefully choreographed crowd scenes sparkle and swoon. The hip-hop soundtrack invigorates the action and in a sense captures the Jazz Age spirit better than jazz itself can now. Both jazz and hip-hop are forms pioneered by black musicians and shunned by the white establishment. But jazz in 2013 cannot help but seem like your grandfather’s music, conjuring sepia-toned nostalgia and black-and-white newsreel flashbacks. Hip-hop, though historically dislocated, better captures the vital energy of the moment, and the Jay-Z soundtrack is perfectly chosen. (It’s worth noting that there are more than a few parallels between Jay-Z and Gatsby himself.)
Maguire’s slightly off-putting Carraway aside, the cast is spot-on, from Edgerton’s menacing Buchanan to Isla Fisher’s ruddy-cheeked Myrtle. Mulligan is infinitely more plausible as an object of desire than predecessor Farrow, although she’s nearly upstaged by an almost too-luminous Elizabeth Debicki as Carraway’s would-be gal Friday Jordan Baker. DiCaprio’s Gatsby is unsubtly introduced amid an explosion of fireworks, and he’s nearly too combustible as our doomed American hero, prone to fits of shouting that seem unbecoming of the cool customer who reimagined his entire life and made it manifest. But he’s wonderful at conveying Gatsby in his moments of poise, and if the characterization is at times shaky, it never loses track of its underlying humanity.
As for the 3D-- pointless, as ever, like one of the melting ice sculptures at a Gatsby party: Pretty at first sight, then forgettable and ultimately a bit of a mess. Whatever scope it might lend to the crowd scenes and zooms through the city is undercut by the way the 3D glasses darken the images and dull the colors. It’s not so much an impediment as a minor distraction, which is the case with most of this Great Gatsby’s faults. It’s imperfect, but it’s bold. I’ll take an ambitious failure over a rigid, too-safe adaptation any day, but Luhrmann’s version, though at times a bit goofy, is no failure.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.