The Great Gatsby
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 2nd June 2013
As our narrator Nick Carraway recounts his woeful tale of alcoholism and melancholy to a therapist, his story necessarily revolves around meeting the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, whom he describes as being “the single most hopeful person I’ve ever met”.
I like to think I’m a bit like Gatsby – not the extremely wealthy, party-throwing bit, but the part of me that feels compelled to go where other critics have disdained to tread, and highlight what actually works in this glitzy, flawed, delirious, inconstant rendition of the classic American novel.
Adapted for the silver screen by Australian ringmaster Baz Luhrmann, who polarised audiences with Romeo+Juliet and Moulin Rouge, it’s little surprise that he and his co-producer/costume/production designer wife were enticed by the swingin’ 20s’ decor, jazz music and sheer lust for life.
Luhrmann captures this beautifully, lighting the film like a Gene Kelly classic with swooping photography, exquisite close-ups and (initially, at least) a frantic pace that mimics the fervour of the Charleston. Even the contentious inclusion of Jay-Z’s contemporary soundtrack is more subtle than feared, with a swinged-up version of his wife’s “Crazy in Love” and ballads from the best of today’s languid songstresses. Granted, however, it is the old-school “Rhapsody in Blue” that proves an ecstatic musical highlight.
For those who didn’t study it in high school, The Great Gatsby follows Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a young man of relative means who falls in with a wealthy crowd of what would today be known as Long Islanders (fictionally the New York outpost of West Egg). His mysterious neighbour holds extravagant parties incognito, and as Carraway becomes his friend and confidant, it becomes clear that the fraudulent Gatsby’s heart is as full of longing as his cellars are full of champagne. Carraway gets caught in a crossfire of several doomed love affairs, before things descend into tragedy.
It is a terrific story, even by today’s standards, when we already know that being rich doesn’t buy you friends, and being beautiful doesn’t make you honourable (I’m talking to you, Daisy Buchanan, even if you are played to perfection by the sublime Carey Mulligan). Appropriately, Gatsby’s smile which, as writer F Scott Fitzgerald memorably describes, “understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself”, comes as naturally to matinee idol Leonardo DiCaprio as the furrowed brow on Mulligan’s frivolous face. If their chemistry is slightly lacking, it speaks more to Gatsby’s uptight stance than their failing as actors.
Maguire, by comparison, starts off jarringly ridiculous in a display of acting that seems more like a series of reaction shots. His trademark dopey voiceover is annoying until he gets drunk at an illicit party and starts to wise up, but throughout he is overshadowed by gutsier types like Joel Edgerton (stalwart of Aussie crime dramas) who holds his own against the Hollywood stars as arrogant philanderer Tom Buchanan.
But, unfortunately for Luhrmann and his regular screenwriter, Craig Pearce, while Fitzgerald’s novel is wonderful to read, its charm is arguably more in the telling than the showing. In being so faithful to the trajectory of the plot (for what choice had they?), they somehow allow the third act to lag where, by rights, it ought to sizzle.
It’s a shame, because the story’s pathos lies in Gatsby’s lonely little boy persona, he who gives his toys away for friendship, yet looks aghast when a favour is granted for free.
Instead, Luhrmann’s caravanserai of colour and noise simply lumbers on through town, resulting in a film that will be remembered as an over-the-top adaptation that leaves you feeling underwhelmed, and decidedly empty.
He put in such a good effort, it feels unfair to lay the blame for the blah at Luhrmann’s feet. But it clearly shows there is a little bit of Gatsby in him, too.