“The Last Tycoon”
IN THE AFTERGLOW of a loud, lavish and limousine-laden party – thrown for the sole purpose of winning back an old girlfriend named Daisy Fay – host Jay Gatsby tells Nick, his neighbor and friend, that the past is never set in stone. “You can’t repeat the past,” Nick protests, to which the consummate self-made man, Gatsby, replies: “Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!”
It’s a crucial difference in opinion and one that captures the American essence of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic “The Great Gatsby,” printed in April of 1925 and foisted on high-school freshmen ever since. (The paperback edition, which was already selling more than a half million copies annually, is currently back on top.) The novel’s titular tragic hero is the very emblem of the nouvelle riche and as the lord of Long Island Sound, he’s been catapulted from an anonymous Midwestern existence as a Great War veteran to the mysterious man-of-the-hour. Lots of Gatsby’s neighbors are in Nick’s ear about whether he’s a killer, a bootlegger, or truly the owner of a successful franchise of pharmacies. Nick is played by the typically neuter Tobey Maguire.
But if Gatsby is the American Dream incarnate, a man who emphatically holds that the past and the future can be bent toward any ambitious man’s objectives, his life plays out as a kind of lonely nightmare. (Don Draper of “Mad Men” is just a reworking of the Gatsby archetype.) His rosebud Daisy is now a married mother and Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, is one of many looking to expose him as anything but great. Possessing what Fitzgerald describes as a “cruel body,” Tom is a racist and a philanderer with a married mistress named Myrtle waiting in the wings. A hostile Tom – I can remember Mrs. Maroney, my high school English teacher, exclaiming “I hate Tom!” – denigrates his rival as “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.”
Now 38 years old, Leonardo DiCaprio fits the role of Gatsby to a (sun-tanned) T. We’ve watched this actor transform from the cat-eyed androgyne of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “Titanic” to the square-headed hulk of “J. Edgar” and “The Aviator.” Those latter biopics, centered on reclusive and enigmatic men, have prepared DiCaprio well for the role of James Gatz/Jay Gatsby, who roams his stately pleasure-dome like Charles Foster Kane. As Daisy, Carey Mulligan (“Drive,” “Shame”) is mostly mute, torn as she is between her own flame and the unfaithful husband who provides her a mansion of her own across the bay. Tom is played by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty”) whose blue eyes flicker ferociously back and forth when he is finally confronted by Gatsby in a swelteringly hot Manhattan hotel room. “Your wife doesn’t love you,” Gatsby tells Tom, “She’s never loved you. She loves me.”
Much of what I’ve already laid out here are plot points, because they remain every bit as compelling and air-tight as they are on the page. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of “The Great Gatsby” becoming as great a film as it is a novel is largely due to the direction of Baz Lurhmann, the Aussie director famous for the MTV-style editing and splashy art direction he brought to “Romeo + Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge.” Those films succeed as stagey spectacles – stabbings, solos, cancan lines – whereas the source material here is a more hushed, low-key affair. (Even the climactic murder, in the novel, is described after the fact and left to the reader’s imagination.) Lurhmann’s hyperactivity is well suited to the gaudy opulence of Gatsby’s high-points – described by Fitzgerald as a “universe of ineffable gaudiness” – but he can’t seem to represent the man’s emotional lows. It was a mistake to make the place from which Nick narrates his tale a sanitarium, and awfully literal-minded as well to type out some of the novel’s more famous lines across the screen, as if a Power-Point presentation were needed to heighten the drama. Lurhmann’s touch is really more of a stranglehold.
This is not to say that “The Great Gatsby” doesn’t lend itself to flashiness, especially in terms of the novel’s automobiles which are, in Lurhmann’s kaleidoscopic reimagining of the tale, as gorgeous as the interiors of Gatsby’s wedding-cake mansion. Daisy Fay, back in her Louisville days, had a “little white roadster,” writes Fitzgerald; there’s Tom’s blue coupé and the so-called “death car” that sets the double demise of Myrtle Wilson and Jay Gatsby into motion. Even Nick frames his libido (or lack thereof) in automotive terms, saying that he is “slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires.” Putting the brakes a bit on Lurhmann’s style would have made this “Gatsby” greater – less tinsel and more teeth.
I want to thank all of my followers but after two years of writing film reviews for CINEMAWOLF, I realize that keeping a truly state-of-the-art blog is a full-time job and the demands of my professional life prevent me from staying current here, so this is likely my final film review. You can find my reviews in print in The G&LR and elsewhere. I wish all of you a long life as grand as Gatsby’s!