Life, etc

Review: The middling good Gatsby, maybe

By J Brooks Spector 31 May 2013

F Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel, The Great Gatsby, has been filmed yet again – this time by the Australian now middle-aged, enfant terrible director, Marc Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann. Luhrmann’s previous works as a director include Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Strictly Ballroom and Australia. The Luhrmann style has come to be identified with in-your-face, over-bright colours; sharp, fast movements and quick cuts; loud, anachronistic soundtracks; and dizzying, swirling camera angles, all prominent in his bag of tricks. The Great Gatsby is no exception. This can be quite overwhelming, and so a real question is whether or not it ultimately overwhelms Fitzgerald’s story as well. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The Great Gatsby was written in 1922, in the midst of the Jazz Age, by a novelist who had just reached the height of his powers. Fitzgerald profiled a world of fast cars, fast-changing social mores, a gusher of illicit money from the selling of contraband liquor (outlawed in the US by an ill-fated constitutional amendment), fast money from selling stocks and bonds in an ill-regulated market – and the parties all this fuelled. These were stock and bond markets almost everyone believed would never stop rising – allowing anyone who got into this trading a chance they could make buckets of cash by selling their purchases on to the next person at a still higher price. Of course it was destined not to last as the Great Depression kicked in after the 1929 stock market collapse; but while it lasted, it was a vast, unending, no-holds-barred, anything goes, weekend party – or so everyone thought.

The Great Gatsby brings Nick Carraway, a seeker after wealth, who has come to New York City to sell stocks and bonds after finishing university. He rents a modest house out on Long Island (about an hour by train from Manhattan), near the water. Coincidentally, his neighbour is the mysterious Jay Gatsby, host of great, roiling bacchanals most weekends – parties attended by everyone from small time gamblers, hustlers, musicians and wannabes to industrialists, bankers, governors and senators.

As it happens, Carraway is also the cousin of Daisy Buchanan, a socially prominent Southern belle who had once carried a torch for Gatsby when he had been a young army officer stationed near Louisville, Kentucky, just before being shipped off to the Western Front in France. Gatsby had been born dirt poor but the army had given him the chance to complete his efforts to turn himself into something very different than a farmer’s son. His army service is following a fortuitous apprenticeship with a rich alcoholic who had given him the tool kit for this act of self-recreation, but not the money to complete his transformation. That would come after World War I.

Watch: Great Gatsby trailer

Filled with unbounded self-confidence and a sense of infinite possibility, Gatsby comes to New York City and becomes the business partner of the bootlegging, bond market rigging, gambling fixer of the 1919 baseball World Series. But Gatsby has also discovered that his former love, Daisy Fay, now Buchanan, has married one of those vastly wealthy, old money types and now lives just across the inlet from Gatsby’s own Xanadu of a palace. As a result, Nick is recruited to bring them together. Gatsby’s downfall comes as he tries to regain his lost love, Daisy, who eventually drives the car that kills Tom Buchanan’s own working-class mistress – and the entire gossamer texture of Gatsby’s carefully created reality comes crashing down around him just before Gatsby himself is killed.

When Fitzgerald’s book was published, critics and reviewers ranged from modestly favourable to thoroughly dismissive. Fitzgerald, in turn, dismissed the reviewers more favourably disposed towards his book – saying they hadn’t actually understood it. Consequently, sales were modest and Fitzgerald began to see this book as a dignified failure. But in World War II, more than 150,000 paperback copies of The Great Gatsby were printed for servicemen’s libraries and with this new readership – men who also dreamed of recreating the world if they survived the war –  its reputation rose and rose.

In the years up to the present, the book has become one of the major works of the modern literary canon. It is a staple of high school and university English and literature courses. The book has sold over 25 million copies worldwide and it annually sells some 500,000 copies and is Scribner’s most popular title. In 2013, the publisher sold 185,000 copies of the e-book alone.

What The Great Gatsby does, of course, is speak to that especially American dream of infinite possibility – the poor boy can become a rich man; the downtrodden man can become a leader. All it really takes is inner strength, a bit of luck, some courage and pluck. The son of a failed Great Plains dirt farmer could become a man rich as Croesus and as powerful as an emperor – especially in the go-go atmosphere of the 1920s – or perhaps in the 2000s as well. In this novel, however, Fitzgerald had crafted a story that also spoke about the ultimate unreachableness of such goals, their transitory nature, the almost Greek drama-like inevitability of overreach, and then, finally, the great crashing sounds that must come in the final act.

In Luhrmann’s hands, however, this almost gauzy, nearly gossamer tale of longing – for money, friendship, love, success, a new masque to cover the flaws – becomes a great, longwinded, crashing circus calliope of a movie. A car trip into the city means a souped-up yellow convertible roars along the roads and bridges at outrageously revved up speeds; the parties are like out-takes from the choreography for a Roman orgy. At times, this works. In that wonderful scene where Gatsby appeals to Daisy’s hedonistic side, showering her with armloads of finely tailored men’s shirts, she revels in the swirling cloth. It looks for a moment like Ang Lee had been a technical advisor on the way silk drapes sensuously when it is thrown heedlessly.

But Luhrmann is not content just to inject the story with a growing sense of portents, as with the great eyes in the faded billboard for that “long-forgotten oculist”, or the vast dust-filled expanses of the coal storage yards and their equally smudged inhabitants – like the morlocks of  HG Wells’ dystopic Time Machine. He also adds some wildly out of period music by JZ, and he also even reinvents Fitzgerald’s own storytelling perspective.

For his film, Nick Carraway is in the hands of a psychiatrist working to cure him of his “morbid alcoholism”. As part of Carraway’s path back to health, his doctor tells him to write out the story of Jay Gatsby, thereby conflating Fitzgerald’s own struggle with alcohol and merging the real author’s identity with one of his characters. Strangely, of all the devices Luhrmann uses in this great, overinflated 3-D expanse of a film, this is the one device that actually makes perfect sense. Fitzgerald had been a major literary figure of the Jazz Age as well as a serious drinker, and it is relatively easy to rethink the novel as an as-told-to story, just the way Luhrmann sets it up. The downside is that to keep this evolving narrative rooted in Fitzgerald’s wonderful allusive prose, Luhrmann’s Carraway/Fitzgerald’s words will swim up from the patient’s rough draft at crucial moments, making the viewer observe the real power of the novel’s actual words – in contrast to Luhrmann’s more baroque texture.

While it has been easy to denigrate Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor whose primary appeal has been to love-struck teens, he actually perfectly captures Jay Gatsby’s carefully created exoskeleton as well as the inner poor boy in love with a woman he can never ultimately possess. By contrast, Toby Maguire as Nick comes across so gormless, so much a nebbish, it is close to impossible to understand just how he would become the repository of all of Gatsby’s deepest secrets and longings – or even why he should be bothered with him at all, save for the fact of his family tie with Daisy. As Daisy, Carey Mulligan somehow seems too real, too corporeal. By contrast, an earlier film version featuring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston had captured Daisy’s etherealness – making her even more of a goal ultimately out of reach for the new and improved Gatsby.

In the supporting cast, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan seems just like the kind of man Carraway/Fitzgerald despised, going heedlessly through life breaking and destroying, although his accent seems strangely off-putting for a Yale-educated, scion of an old money, great family. Finally, however, the really glaring oddity must be veteran Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan as the criminal Meyer Wolfsheim – Gatsby’s partner in crime. Maybe Luhrmann was trying to avoid the obvious charge of anti-Semitism, but it just makes no sense, especially since the gambler remains named Wolfsheim and Tom Buchanan refers to him as “that kike” in the dialogue anyway. In any case, Bachchan mugs and rolls his eyes so wildly he is like a stereotypical Indian village villain who had wandered onto the wrong set by mistake, rather than a worldly criminal.

Despite Luhrmann’s best efforts, however, it proves impossible to overwhelm the longing and desire for the unobtainable that permeates Fitzgerald’s jewel of a novel. But to finally cinch the sale, Luhrmann must eventually surrender all his hyperbolic fury and fall back on Fitzgerald’s own last elegiac lines, some of the most poignant in American literature:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any blights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

See Luhrmann’s film for DiCaprio’s Oscar-worthy performance, yes, but also be prepared to leave the cinema thoroughly disconcerted by much of the rest of it – unless you happen to like your 1920s world delivered to you Blade Runner style, but with a rapper backtrack. DM

Read more:

  • The Great Gatsby at Rotten Tomatoes
  • The Current Cinema All That Jazz “The Great Gatsby”, David Denby’s review in the New Yorker
  • Shimmying Off the Literary Mantle at the New York Times
  • The Great Gatsby, full text at crossref
  • Baz Luhrmann on The Great Gatsby: ‘Fitzgerald was a clown, just like I am’ at the Guardian
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