Arts and Culture

'The Great Gatsby'

This version's brash, sensational, musically eclectic... and not great.

By Steve Burgess 10 May 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about culture twice a month for The Tyee.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded his novel The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, and COMIN' RIGHT AT YA IN REAL 3-D!'

I have added that last clause just to bring you up to speed. The 1925 classic is now a film spectacle brought to garish life by Baz "Lurid' Luhrman. The director's goal was clearly to go beyond the usual overly-respectful literary adaptations and give the film a brash spirit worthy of its setting -- a Moulin Rouge for the Jazz Age. His movie has its attractions but subtlety isn't one of them. Taken just a little further we might have been given Johnny Depp as Cap'n Jack Gatsby.

Instead we get Leo DiCaprio as the titular self-made mystery man, Carey Mulligan as his once and future love Daisy Buchanan, Joel Edgerton as her husband Tom, and Toby Maguire as Gatsby's neighbour -- and our narrator -- Nick Carraway.

Carraway has rented a modest cottage in Long Island, across the water from the wealthy Buchanans -- Daisy is his second cousin -- and next door to the enigmatic Gatsby, who throws wild parties every weekend but doesn't appear at them. One day Carraway receives an invitation from Gatsby's manservant and eventually discovers that he is to play a key role in Gatsby's great master plan -- a plan to reclaim the past.

Words fly

Luhrman and screenwriter Craig Pearce have decided to add a framing device in which Carraway is in a sanitarium drying out from excessive boozing, and is encouraged to write his tale as a form of therapy. This may be a way of underlining Carraway's role as stand-in for the boozy Fitzgerald himself. At any rate it allows Luhrman to throw a lot of typed words on the screen, words that pop out in 3-D and swirl about like snowstorms. Writing! It's real literature -- in 3-D!

As with other Luhrman movies the soundtrack is a major player. There's some great Louis Armstrong music here and a lovely use of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. But it's mixed in with modern tracks from Jay-Z (the film's executive producer), and his wife Beyonce, plus Lana Del Ray and others. Sometimes it's jarring. Sometimes, especially in big party scenes, it works quite well.

Those parties are probably the best thing about this screen iteration of Gatsby. It's nice to imagine someone could throw bashes like that. The story says that simply everyone attends but that's not how it looks -- these guests appear to have been carefully screened for their looks, style, and above all, dancing ability. The 1920s equivalent of announcing your party on Facebook would never result in good-looking crowds like these.

Comparing films to books is usually considered unfair, but comparing films to films seems legit. The best-known Gatsby adaptation before this one was the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as Gatsby and Daisy and Sam Waterston as Nick. Reviews at the time were decidedly lukewarm as critics opined that director Jack Clayton and screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola had failed to capture the spirit of the novel. But I saw that film at an impressionable age and loved it (an opinion I've heard from friends as well). Now the 1974 version looks like Masterpiece Theatre as opposed to Luhrman's Great Gatsby Thrill Ride at Warner Brothers Theme Park.

Cranked

The casting doesn't help. Two big differences: Nick Carraway and Daisy Buchanan. As played by Mia Farrow, Daisy was ditzy but determinedly so, wearing a flighty facade to avoid the cruel world. As played by Carey Mulligan, Daisy is a much more serious and substantial character. Which sounds like a good thing but when matters come to a head the characterization doesn't fit. Nick describes the Buchanans as "careless people.' It was easy to believe of Farrow's Daisy, but not Mulligan's.

Sam Waterston's 1974 Carraway was perfect -- the calm centre around which the parties and passion swirled. Maguire's narration sets a different tone right away. It's declamatory, as if he is delivering Marc Antony's funeral oration for Caesar. I wonder if perhaps he was coached by Luhrman to put more "oomph' into it so as to match the film's overall cranked-to-11 tone.

Unlike Coppola's 1974 screenplay Luhrman and Pearce seems to want to demystify Gatsby as quickly as possible, offering plenty of back story relatively early on. Between the 3-D on-screen typing, the exposition, the dramatic narration, and the gaudy visuals, Luhrman does not seem willing to leave anything to nuance. It's The Great Gatsby upside your head. Read the book, see the movie, or wait for the theme park ride.  [Tyee]

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