I don’t think it’s a leap to say that the strength of the book was not in the plot or dialogue, the elements that are most directly transferable to the screen, but the prose that Fitzgerald used between the action. What I remember most is the book’s evocation of the excess of the 1920s, the corresponding social decay, and the futility of trying to reach in to the past and capture lost opportunities.
Baz Luhrmann, who co-wrote the screenplay with Craig Pearce, tries to inject as much of Fitzgerald’s own words as he can through the creation of an awkward framing device. The film begins years after the events of the novel with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway in an asylum where a psychiatrist has asked him to keep a journal to help him cope with the memories of his tragic summer on Long Island. Through Maguire’s narration of his journal the filmmakers get to include much of the novel’s memorable language in to the film. The asylum scenes are unnecessary and don’t accomplish anything that a straight narration couldn’t have.
The first fifteen minutes or so are pretty rough. There’s a manic energy and goofiness to the initial introductions of Nick, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), and Daisy (Carey Muligan) that didn’t quite work for me. At certain points when the three characters first meet the film seems sped up and the characters have a stop motion animation quality to them that is jarring. However the effect soon disappears.
It’s when Tom drags Nick in to the city that the film begins to sizzle. I know a lot of people will/have written off Luhrmann’s vision of Fitzgerald’s New York as overly synthetic and theatrical, but it works. Fitzgerald wrote his novel at the height of American indulgence. Investors were reaping the profits of an overleveraged stock market, despite prohibition alcohol flowed copiously, and the country’s victory in World War I had emboldened a frontier nation to abandon their provincial outposts to conquer the world. Luhrmann gets this and his vision of this place and time steams of excess and moral decay.
In one of the film’s best sequences, Maguire waits nervously as Edgerton’s Tom beds his mistress Myrtle in a NYC apartment. Unable to escape Myrtle’s ready-to-go friends, Carraway gives in to the moment and resolves to get drunk. Just as Maguire takes his first sip from a highball glass, a Kanye West song begins blaring over the soundtrack and the room dissolves around him. Intoxicated, the audience through Maguire suddenly gain an omnipotent view of the city. Families sitting down to dinner, a mixed race couple sharing a moment of passion, a school girl staring out the window wistfully. With Kanye still thumping, Maguire sees himself on the street staring up at himself in the window. The reserved Carraway has given in to the excitement of this time and place, and Luhrmann’s staging of scenes like this is why his “Gatsby” was worth making.
A note on the hip hop soundtrack. I think it works for an adaptation of this book in the year 2013. To a greater percentage of the likely viewers, hip hop is a stronger signifier of over indulgence, raucous partying, etc. than flapper music from the 1920s. It’s a gimic but it’s a gimic that makes sense given the circumstances.
Another strength is Dicaprio’s Gatsby. I like how you can see the seams of his fabricated old money persona from his earliest scenes. In Gatsby’s first prolonged scene with Carraway, Gatsby gives an elevator speech about his upbringing, then just a scene later a gangster acquitance of Gatsby’s reiterates to Nick the exact same talking points, showing that Gatsby has clearly prepped his gangster buddy to keep up his charade. Other evidence such as DiCaprio’s dodgy accent illustrate the tragic ‘fake it till you make it’ M.O. that Gatsby utilizes in his pursuit of Daisy.
So, for the middle hour, or let’s call it seventy-five minutes, the movie really hums. I was amazed, and for a second I even thought that Luhrmann was going to pull it off, and deliver a unique but definitive version of a seemingly unthinkable novel.
However, sometime after Gatsby has reunited with Daisy, and the plot machinations of inevitable conflict between Gatsby and Tom, as well as Daisy and Tom and Daisy and Gatsby kick in the film goes on autopilot and Luhrmann basically shoots a straight version of the final fifty pages of the book. I don’t know if it would have been feasible to keep the energy level from the first and second acts up until the end, but if you’ve read the book and know where things are going it becomes kind of tough to stick it out.
The problem is that the novel is essentially a tragedy about unlikeable people. Gatsby is delusional and manipulative, histrionics paralyze Daisy, Tom is Tom, and Nick is too passive to engage fully. Fitzgerald’s plot and dialogue in a vaccum doesn’t equate a great screenplay. Hearing Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy repeat lines like “Tell him you don’t love him!” and “I love you, but I love him too!” over and over again, even by actors as talented as these is not enjoyable in it’s own right. Having read the book, I know where this is going, and at a certain point I just wanted to see the credits roll so that I could recall the film’s more memorable sequences.
But at the same time, I can’t imagine how a better film could be made out of this material. For a majority of the running time, Luhrmann captures the essence of the novel. Certain key imagery from the book is evoked effectively. The performances are all good to great. I don’t know if there’s another gear that Gatsby can throw it in to on film.