Fair Enough, Old Sport: The Okey-Dokey Gatsby


The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)

Before seeing this film last night, I had watched two previous versions of The Great Gatsby: the one made in 1974 – starring Mia Farrow as Daisy, Robert Redford as Gatsby, and Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway – and the one made in 2000, starring Mira Sorvino as Daisy, Toby Stephens as Gatsby, and Paul Rudd as Nick. Neither film had impressed me, although both were relatively faithful to the novel. There are three other previous filmed versions of the book that I have never seen: a silent film from 1926, a noirish film from 1949 (with Alan Ladd), and a hip-hop version – entitled G – from 2002.

I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel for the first (and only) time in 1988, while studying for the summer on a college trip in then-Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), in the former Soviet Union. Somehow, I had missed reading it in school. I loved the book, though not as much as I loved Tender Is the Night when I read that later in the same summer. I found something very powerful in the narrative of the self-made man falling short of his aspirations, undone by the ruthless carelessness of the moneyed classes. Perhaps I especially enjoyed reading it in the (crumbling) land of the supposed proletarian revolution.

But it was a dreamy and melancholy book, and something seems to come over the cinematic adaptors of the novel when they create their own versions. The films that I have seen all seem to get bogged down in the depressive nature of Gastby’s failed struggle to win Daisy, ignoring the manic energy that must have propelled Gatsby so close to his goal in the first place. Sure, the parties in each subsequent movie are lavish and crazy, but the rest of the story drags on, and on and on.

Baz Luhrmann, the director of this new Gatsby, has done a decent and faithful job of bringing certain elements to life. The cast is strong (with the exception of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, whose sad-sack face and manner is part of the problem here). Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom, and Isla Fisher as Myrtle are all quite fine in their respective roles. In fact, they are each better than the actors who preceded them in earlier versions. If one could combine them with Sam Waterston from the 1974 film, one would have an almost perfect cast.

Luhrmann has also done a good job with some of his mise-en-scène. I enjoyed the party scene at Myrtle’s apartment in New York, and the parties at Gatsby’s on Long Island. They have verve and style, which is to be expected from the director of Strictly BallroomWilliam Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! (I only liked the first of those, however). Would that he had then avoided the deep funk that seems to overcome every director in the later parts of the story. And at 142 minutes, Luhrmann doesn’t do us any favors by prolonging the narrative almost 30 minutes longer than the longest of the earlier films.

One thing I decidedly did not like was the framing device of Nick Carraway writing the story from a sanitarium, where he has gone to recuperate from the “morbid alcoholism” (I think those are the words we see on his diagnostic papers) brought on by the tragedy to which he was witness. This seems to be an excuse for Luhrmann to throw words from the novel directly on the screen, floating in front of us, quoting the original source text. I’ll give the director points for trying, though, and it was the only part of the movie where the 3D technology made any sense, since it is kind of cool to have the words dance in the air. But it’s also unnecessary, and only slows down the plot, which is the last thing this particular movie needs. And speaking of 3D, other than that (wasted) effect, there is absolutely no reason for this movie to have been made in anything other than 2D – since other than the floating words, nothing comes of it – so save yourself some money and avoid the more expensive ticket.

I was also disappointed in the quality of the CGI (computer generated imagery). Luhrmann and his team have created these sweeping overhead shots that send us careening through New York City, or across the bay between West Egg and East Egg, yet every time we cut to one of these shots, the details in the frame look fake. It’s jarring and, again, unnecessary. No amount of fancy camera work will make up for the slow pace of the screenplay.

Still, it’s a harmless enough adaptation, and I recommend it for the cast.

One aspect of the film that is truly indefensible is the use of African-Americans. Strangely enough, Baz Luhrmann – who worked closely with Jay-Z (listed as an executive producer) on the film – seems to feel that his inclusion of African-Americans in the film is a net positive, as he relates in this interview from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival: “I think there’s a great African-American presence in this film and I’m very very grateful for it.” To which I can only write in reply – to both Luhrmann and Jay-Z – “Are you nuts?” It’s a totally superficial – and stereotypical – presence. We see black servants (mostly faceless), which I can deal with, since that fits in with what we expect of the 1920s domestic arrangements of wealthy white households. But then, for absolutely no reason, during the party scene at Myrtle’s, we keep on cutting outside to a balcony where a lone black jazz musician plays a soulful tune. We are also treated to near naked black female dancers in speak-easies and at Gatsby’s parties. Finally, at Myrtle’s accident scene, in the midst of weeping faces – some black and some white – we are treated to a lone black woman who begins to sign a gospel song. True, we do get one brief scene where we see a car full of black partygoers being driven by a white chauffeur, but it is hardly a meaningful image, beyond the superficiality of the optics. I would have preferred that Luhrmann ignore African-Americans entirely than include them in this way, redolent of the way blacks were portrayed in films throughout the studio era.

One final note – since I mentioned Jay-Z – the soundtrack to this film has been the subject of some controversy. It is supposed to “[translate] the Jazz Age sensibility of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novel into the music equivalent of our times, through the blending of hip-hop, traditional jazz and other contemporary musical textures.” And I would have been fine with some wild anachronistic stuff, if only to add energy to the picture. Instead, we just get really boring remixes of jazz standards. All of that work for such paltry rewards!

So, old sport, you should have enough information to make your own choice as to whether or not you want to see the film. It’s no worse than the 1974 adaptation, just a little longer.

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