I had fervently hoped that Baz Luhrmann’s signature brand of loopy romanticism was exactly the antidote for staid, sullen efforts to bring literary classics to the screen like the plodding 1974 Redford version. He delivered enough to make a movie good enough to be worth watching, at least for completist Gatsby fans, but far from Great enough to be worthy of the title.
Surprisingly, Luhrmann makes the most fundamental error of all page-to-screen translation: overuse of narration. Words make a novel great, so it’s understandable that directors want to capture those words onscreen. But each artistic medium can only be great in its own form – narration and words flashed across a screen are unnecessary concessions to the inability of the visual medium to fire the imagination as great writing can. Pounding the screen with Courier font only screams, “this movie doesn’t know how to convey the depth of immortal prose!”
It’s really too bad, because the movie does deliver great visuals when the director didn’t feel overwhelmed by the classic novel. The filmmakers clearly did their homework and were in love with the gorgeous writing of the book. The irony is that Fitzgerald’s cinematic descriptions translate perfectly to the screen, in scene after scene after scene. The expansive Buchanan lawn “jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens,” the breeze in a room that “blew curtains in one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling,” the limousine “driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes” – these are not famous passages, and the film brings the unspoken words to life beautifully. But when burdened by great prose, we hear Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway intoning about boats and currents and the past, with that silly Courier font and no memorable visuals at all.
The two scenes that worked the best were critical ones in the novel, where the film did manage to let go of the crutch of narration. The reunion of Daisy and Gatsby in Nick’s cottage was wonderful from the cutting of the lawn, through the overstuffed house of flowers and pathetic tea cakes, leading to a rain-drenched Gatsby and frightened Daisy finally reconnecting in wonder. Every moment of that was pitch perfect down to the clock that didn’t break though everyone acted as if it did. And the scene where Myrtle runs into the street, thinking that Tom is driving the yellow car, was perfect in its operatic brutality. Although purists might hate it, I loved the use of modern music in the film – a good example of Luhrmann trusting his own emotional tuning fork rather that giving stultifying respect to the source material.
Leonardo DiCaprio was an excellent Gatsby, never perfectly comfortable in his sheen of refinement, his insecurity and obsession poking out through the surface in increasingly desperate displays. I thought Daisy Buchanan was an unplayable role, but Carey Mulligan has the talent to make the most of it, her voice freighted with emotion and eyes conveying the love, fear and weakness of the classic Fitzgerald girl. Isla Fisher brought the sensuous vitality of Myrtle Wilson to life in her few scenes. Joel Edgerton was a passable but unexceptional Tom Buchanan. Elizabeth Debicki was disappointing as Jordan Baker, without the athletic bearing and liar’s charm that should define the famous sportswoman. I’m never fully convinced by Tobey Maguire, and he didn’t break that streak here as Nick Carraway. Nevertheless, I wish the film had tried to develop the relationship between Jordan and Nick more fully – it’s a small but important sideline in the book that reminds us that Nick is more than a literary device.
As far as devices go, the framing of the narration by Nick in a sanatorium was well designed. Although it’s not in the book, it’s a clever connection to the Fitzgeralds – both Scott and Zelda spent time in them – and is used well to turn Nick into the author and not just the narrator of the story. It’s just too bad that the filmmakers thought the device was necessary, that they held the words so holy that they couldn’t rely solely on their own bountiful skills in cinema.