Francis Scott Fitzgerald knew movies from the inside. He wrote screenplays for MGM and published 17 autobiographical short stories charting the sorrows and triumphs of a Hollywood hack. In 1940 “Fitz,” as friends and fans called him, was working on The Last Tycoon, a discerning novel about a film mogul, when he died at 44 from the effects of alcoholism.
By then his most famous work, The Great Gatsby, had been made into a silent feature. There would be three more adaptations. The first sound version, released in 1949, starred Alan Ladd in the title role. Lost in copyright limbo, the film noir is unavailable on DVD and is never broadcast on television. The second, starring Robert Redford and a somnambulistic cast, was a box-office flop, but it tried to catch the spirit of the Jazz Age. The last—and by all means least—is in theaters now.
Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is everything the novel is not—overlong, gross, and perverse. The book is a lean, lyric 180 pages; the movie galumphs on for two hours and 23 minutes. (It comes in two versions: 3-D and 2-D.) The Roaring Twenties, in which Gatsby takes place, introduced Broadway’s finest melodists—Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, et al. But there’s hardly a note from these giants in Luhrmann’s film, save for an occasional phrase—Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” when lovers are misbehaving, or the opening of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at the first appearance of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio.) The rest of the score consists of lush or ominous chords by Craig Armstrong or anachronistic rap interludes by the film’s co-producer, Shawn (Jay Z) Carter.
Yet the fiasco cannot be blamed on the film’s music, or on DiCaprio’s callow impersonation of a charismatic figure with a criminal past. Or on Tobey Maguire’s prep-school performance as the narrator, Nick Carraway. Or on the overwrought Carey Mulligan as Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s obsessive desire. Or on the underwrought Elizabeth Debicki as the athletic clotheshorse, Jordan Baker. Or on any of the other players—including Amitabh Bachchan, a superstar imported from India and ludicrously miscast as the Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, and various African-American actors, stiffly arranged like props at Gatsby’s galas.
No, the real trouble with Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby is Baz Luhrmann. Many important American novels are told in the first person, from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to The Sun Also Rises to Invisible Man to The Catcher in the Rye to The Great Gatsby. In each book, the narrator observes the literary convention, telling his tale without furnishing a reason for his garrulity. Not here. In the novel, Nick Carraway is content to address the reader straight-on. In Luhrmann’s film, he’s in a rehab center, drying out from acute alcoholism, encouraged by his therapist to set his reminiscences down on paper.
This is not the worst of Luhrmann’s many desecrations. The Australian director completely misunderstands Fitzgerald’s relationship with New York City. The novelist, a Minnesotan by birth and a Princetonian by education, regarded Manhattan and environs as a kind of Oz. His Gotham needed none of the movie’s special effects, bizarre lighting, and Fourth-of-July pyrotechnics. It had a “racy, adventurous feel” at night, Nick Carraway recalls, “and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness.”
Breathless with wonder, Nick sends Manhattan an additional valentine: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” But all that mystery and beauty has no place in Lurhmann’s garish overview. Except for a few aerial shots of Manhattan, we might as well be in Australia—where, in fact, most of the movie was shot. This lack of a sense of place, a Fitzgerald strength, shows in almost every scene. Down Under, vehicular traffic drives on the left side of the road. Thus in the movie, cars are furnished with fake steering wheels to make them look like American models. Thus the interior of the Plaza Hotel is unconvincingly reconstructed, 10,000 miles from its real locale. And thus the borough of Queens is presented as a series of smoky, polluted arenas indistinguishable from William Blake’s nineteenth-century “dark Satanic mills,” as if Lurhmann had dialed back too far on his time machine.
This latest Gatsby adaptation may yet become a box-office hit. After all, as Oscar Wilde observed, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” Even so, it likely will soon be forgotten, a noisy, gaudy failure that may give audiences starts, but never gives them Fitz.