Even if it’s true, let’s forget the “great American novel” business regarding “The Great Gatsby” for a minute. What makes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, published in the spring of 1925 but set three years earlier, such a haunted portrait of a time, a place and a Lost Generation dream?
The work’s spellbinding qualities, I think, lie less with the beauty of the prose (although God knows it’s beautiful, and not just on the surface) than with the psyche of the author so eager to sum it all up and explain the Jazz Age mania and conspicuous consumption and reckless, self-deluding love. By most accounts, Fitzgerald was a touchy, insecure alcoholic (dead by 44) who craved the critical respect and popularity that, despite his success, remained just out of reach — ungraspable, like the light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s pier across the bay.
Writing about the mysterious Jay Gatsby, through the eyes of Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald was wrestling with a gorgeous illusion of a man. The author, who completed “Gatsby” while living on the Cote d’Azur in the south of France with his fatally “colorful” wife, Zelda, never completely resolved his feelings of envy and of contempt for the Gatsby crowd, nor of his own uneasy self-regard. He knew what it meant to be on the outside looking in, even when he was in.
“When I like men I want to be like them,” Fitzgerald once wrote. “I want to lose the outer qualities that give me my individuality and be like them. I don’t want the man; I want to absorb into myself all the qualities that make him attractive and leave him out.” We’re very close to Patricia Highsmith’s Mr. Ripley here.
None of that for director and co-adapter Baz Luhrmann. It’s party time! Despite a few good ideas and the uniformly splendid production and costume designs by Luhrmann’s mate and partner, Catherine Martin, this frenzied adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is all look and no feel.
If you liked “Moulin Rouge!” — Luhrmann’s hyperactive ode to Paris at the end of the 19th century — you’ll probably find a lot to admire here. In fragments, the look is enough. Our first clear vision of the bootlegger? Murderer? Stock manipulator? Gatsby, portrayed as 100 variations on the theme of Arrow Collar perfection by Leonardo DiCaprio, is beyond grand opera. On his veranda, the fireworks booming behind him on cue, Gatsby turns and announces himself and bang! George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” reaches its climax. There’s really nowhere to go from there.
And yet the story has just begun to tell itself. Working with co-writer Craig Pearce, Luhrmann invents scenes with Nick, played by a diffident, glassy-eyed Tobey Maguire, diagnosed as “morbidly alcoholic” and drying out at a Menninger’s-type clinic, where he struggles to write his life story as it pertains to Gatsby; his beloved Kentucky debutante Daisy, played by Carey Mulligan; Daisy’s vicious and philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton); and the languorous golf pro Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki).
The soundtrack for Gatsby and Daisy’s love story, much like the one heard in “Moulin Rouge!” and countless other films, including Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” is gleefully way, way out of period. Shawn “Jay Z” Carter served as executive producer on Luhrmann’s film, and the tracks range from will.i.am to Florence + the Machine. One era evokes another: The bashes remain the same, only the music changes.
The script remains quite faithful to Fitzgerald in many respects, other than the framing device of Nick in the sanatorium. The acting is not the issue here. There’s a moment in a key scene, a sweltering apartment confrontation between DiCaprio’s Gatsby and Edgerton’s Tom, when Gatsby loses his vaunted cool. It’s quick and scary and, because DiCaprio is unafraid of raw emotion, startlingly effective. And then it’s gone, and we’re back to too much computer-generated imagery (although some of the panoramas of the 1920s Manhattan skyline and of West Egg and East Egg, Long Island, are lovely); restless, hurtling editing rhythms designed to grind every conversation to a series of mini-halts; and yet another showcase for designer Martin’s pearly taste in shirts and jewelry. Shooting in 3-D, because he could, Luhrmann’s dalliance in this particular visual universe is neither a hindrance nor a help. It’s simply more stuff, in a movie already stuffed with stuff where the dramatic stuffing should be.
My favorite Luhrmann to date wasn’t a film at all: It was his 2002 Broadway staging of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” which was full of grand concepts and bold design strokes, far more selectively handled. The greatest “Gatsby,” besides Fitzgerald’s? That’s easy: “Gatz,” the six-and-a-half-hour theatrical version presented, with every word of Fitzgerald’s spoken onstage, by Elevator Repair Service. (It played Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2008.) There the mystery of Gatsby, the illusion, and Fitzgerald, the illusion-loving literary striver, remained miraculously intact and powerful. Despite the best efforts of DiCaprio, Mulligan and Edgerton, all I really got out of Luhrmann’s movie was a half-developed notion of Gatsby as the freewheeling, vaguely psychotic auteur of his own movie. There’s always something to watch. But the actors’ efforts to get something going the old-fashioned way — by interacting with each other, in the service of the characters — get shoved to the sidelines, in favor of one more blast of glitter.