They failed in 1926 and again in 1949. They still didn’t get it right in 1974, 2000, and 2002. With all that practice you would think the filmmakers’ sixth attempt at bringing “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the Jazz Age, to the silver screen would be successful. But sadly that’s not the case. From the inappropriate sound track to the flat performances to the CGI cityscapes to the wasted use of 3D to the liberties it takes with the novel, this film may go down as one of the biggest disappointments in Hollywood history.
As the film opens, we find Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) ensconced in Perkins Sanitarium, where he is being treated for “morbid alcoholism” (This not in the book.), and as he is attempting to tell his therapist about a man named Jay Gatsby, the doctor suggests that he write his thoughts down. Therefore Gatsby’s story unfolds as a giant flashback.
The saga begins in 1922, when Nick, who was graduated from Yale University and served in World War I, moves to the mythical village of West Egg on Long Island, N.Y. He aspires to a career in bond sales on Wall Street, and it just so happens that his small cottage sits next door the palatial mansion of millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), which is located directly across the bay from the equally ostentatious dwelling of Tom (Joel Edgerton) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) Buchanan in East Egg. Daisy is Nick’s cousin, and her husband was in Yale with him, and so when they learn he has moved to Long Island, they invite him to dinner.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 9
In an attempt to bring some romance into Nick’s life that night, Daisy introduces him to her friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a somewhat famous golfer. Although the relationship that develops between Nick and Jordan offers fascinating reading in the book, it is sadly reduced to practically nothing in the film. No surprise there.
One day later in the summer Nick receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s legendary parties, and naturally he accepts. Each weekend myriad wealthy people flock to Gatsby’s mansion for free food and booze. They don’t need an invitation, and Gatsby doesn’t really know many of them.
“I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited–they went there.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 3
As Nick wanders aimlessly among the boisterous revelers at the frenetic party, he wonders aloud to a man with whom he has been speaking who and where Gatsby is, at which point the man smiles and says, “I’m Gatsby.”
“He smiled understandingly -- much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 3
Thus begins the friendship forming the nucleus of the film, and Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby and Daisy had been in love five years ago before Gatsby went off to war, but when he returned, Daisy was married to Tom, whom Gatsby insists she doesn’t love. When Gatsby realizes that Nick is Daisy’s cousin, he asks Nick to invite her to tea. (Gatsby intentionally lives across the bay from Daisy, and he considers the green light at the end of her dock a symbol of hope for being reunited with her.) Daisy accepts, finds Gatsby there, and discovers she still has deep feelings for him. Now we have love triangle complicated by the fact that Tom has a mistress named Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), whose husband owns and operates garage located in the valley of ashes.
“This is a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 2
As the story progresses, a horrible event transpires setting in motion a series of occurrences ultimately culminating in Gatsby’s tragic downfall. If you have read the book, you know what happens. If you haven’t, I suggest you do so instead of seeing the movie the because the book is an American literary classic whereas the film merely offers still another example of Hollywood’s consistently maddening propensity for desecrating literary masterpieces.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) has explained in a number of interviews why he decided to do “The Great Gatsby” in 3-D and to forgo the appropriate Jazz Age music in favor of hip hop for the soundtrack, but I really don’t give a damn what he says. The 3-D is wasted (The only things that really come out of the screen are a few snowflakes and some words from Nick’s manuscript.), and the soundtrack is a joke. This guy probably would do a remake of “American Graffiti” and replace all those fabulous 1950s songs with the music of Bach. Or how about doing “Phantom of the Opera” and replacing Andrew Lloyd Weber’s score with country western music?
But even more disturbing than Luhrmann’s approach to the film are the robotic performances pretty much across the board. Although I liked Maguire well enough in the “Spider-Man” films and a few others in which he played the parts of a very young man, I’m afraid he doesn’t have much range as an actor. In all of his roles he rarely changes expressions, and his voice often sounds as if he is going through delayed puberty. I think he was miscast as Nick.
Unfortunately Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy isn’t any better than Maguire’s turn as Nick. As the object of Gatsby’s longing, she exudes all the sex appeal of a rock. She doesn’t convey Daisy’s emotions believably at all, and her scenes with DiCaprio are completely devoid of any sexual tension or chemistry.
As for DiCaprio, who has evolved into a very fine actor, he looks terrific in the part of Gatsby, but, like the other actors in the film, he just doesn’t capture the aura of his character effectively, and his accent really sounds forced. Gatsby is an incredibly complex person, and portraying him accurately would be difficult for any actor. Just ask Robert Redford, who had trouble with the role in the 1974 film version.
“He wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. 6
In the film’s production notes, DiCaprio offered some insight into playing Gastby.
“Gatsby is an incredible character to play. I think he’s very much the manifestation of the American dream, of imagining who you can become… and he does it all for the love of a woman. But even that is open to interpretation: Is Daisy just the manifestation of his dreams? Or is he really in love with this woman? I think that he’s a hopeless romantic but he’s also an incredibly empty individual searching for something to fill a void in his life.”
Now in all fairness, the film is a cinematic banquet, but I highly recommend foregoing the 3-D version because it adds nothing and may even detract from the stunning costumes and gorgeous sets. But these are not enough to save the film from earning a final score of a very disappointing five.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson here is that literary masterpieces really just belong on the printed page and not on the silver screen.