Movies: The Great Gatsby

It’s almost impossible to talk about any of the five film versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby without using the word “classic.” Sadly, except for the 1949 movie starring Alan Ladd in the title role, none of the movies before came close to attaining the stature of the book. And, sadly, neither does Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated version opening today.

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) rediscover their old love on Long Island in 1922.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. ©2012.

In all fairness, I must explain that not only is Gatsby my favorite novel — one of the few I’ve read many times — but I also am hyper-aware of Fitzgerald as he lived where I grew up when he wrote the book. Thus, I’m very familiar with the real Long Island communities of West Egg and East Egg (Great Neck and Manhasset, respectively) and I regard the book as sacred. It paints a portrait of time and place that is nearly perfect. I so wanted the movie to follow suit.

The story of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his love for Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) is told by Daisy’s cousin, Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire), the stand-in for Fizgerald. The obstacle to the love of Gatsby and Daisy is her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton).

Luhrmann has loaded his 3-D movie with Roaring 20s glitz and glamor and, at the same time, sacrificed the humanity of the characters. With one minor flaw, DiCaprio makes a fine Gatsby. Mulligan is miscast as an American flapper. She’s beautiful, but decidedly British and has no substance. McGuire embodies the watchful Nick. The problem is that we just don’t care about these people. The movie is gorgeous to watch but that is a shell akin to a hollow Fabergé egg. The acting is generally fine but the script is lacking.

The gorgeous look of the movie is attributable to the set and costume design of the piece by Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife.

The flaw in DiCaprio’s Gatsby is the fact he’s afflicted with an strange speech pattern, talking like someone Auntie Mame may have described as “having braces on his brains.” It is, one supposes, someone’s idea of the accent a rich Easterner might have had in 1922. It is silly.

Daisy seems incomplete. She is vacant, frivolous and alternately loves Gatsby and her husband. She resembles a feather in the wind more than a grown woman.

Tom Buchanan, a Yale classmate of Nick’s, is the most fully drawn in the film. He has substance and — whereas other characters seem to do things for no particular reason — he has a sense of purpose.

The framing device for the movie is nowhere in the book. Here, Nick is telling and writing his story while a patient in a mental institution. The words he writes float across the screen and he gains insight as he talks through therapy.

But, sadly, Nick is the only character who grows. Everyone else just has things happen to them. As the closing line of the book and movie tells us, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

At 143 minutes, it takes longer to watch this incarnation of The Great Gatsby than it takes many people to actually read the book. And, in the end, you’ll gain more from reading it. The person I took to the screening referred to the movie repeatedly as “eye candy.” I’m sure even she’d have to admit that 143 minutes of candy is enough to make you sick.