By Preston Wilder
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby is very short (181 pages), but its film adaptations tend to be (over)long: the 1974 version with Robert Redford in the title role ran 144 minutes, and now this new version with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby clocks in at 142. Partly it’s because the book is such a classic – especially in the US – and Hollywood has often confused running-time with reverence; nothing says ‘seriousness of purpose’ like a two-and-a-half-hour epic. Partly, too, it’s because lots of time (and budget) must be lavished to depict the wild parties Jay Gatsby likes to throw in his Long Island mansion, including in this case confetti, fireworks and lots of chaos at the end as hundreds of drunken revellers try to get in their cars and go home at the same time.
But there’s something else as well – because The Great Gatsby is about something which literature can express in a few well-chosen words but cinema can’t really show, so instead it skates around it again and again, hoping it’ll somehow emerge incrementally. It’s there when Daisy (Carey Mulligan) says, “All the bright and precious things fade so fast. And they don’t come back”. It’s there in the choice of Lana Del Rey’s smoky voice (the soundtrack is deliberately anachronistic) singing “Will you still love me / When I’m no longer young / and beautiful?”. It’s obviously there later on, when Gatsby is warned that “You can’t repeat the past” – because that’s exactly what he’s trying to do. He’s a fool for love, which is bad enough – but it’s not even love, it’s the memory of love.
That’s the wondrous, moving twist at the heart of The Great Gatsby: that Gatsby – this mystery man with the ice-cream suit and beguiling smile, this glamorous figure, this rich power-broker who makes a traffic cop go away just by flashing his business card – is driven by nothing more (or less) than the love of a woman. A woman, moreover, that he can’t even bring himself to approach directly, so instead he buys a house near hers and throws extravagant parties, hoping she’ll somehow float in one night – and meanwhile he gazes across the water at the place where she lives with her husband, literally reaching out for the flashing green light at the end of their jetty. And it’s not even the woman he longs for – it’s the “incorruptible dream”, his idyllic memory of their time together five years earlier.
All this comes from the novel, which is very wistful (that’s why it’s short). Baz Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, doesn’t really do wistful – yet he understands the book, so his trademark effusive style works as the equivalent of Gatsby’s lavish parties and “old sport”s, half-concealing an inner desolation: the splashier it gets, the more one notes the undertow of failure (the framing device finds our hero Nick in a sanatorium). This, in my opinion, is Luhrmann’s best film yet (though I wasn’t wild about the others), and the only one that made me tear up occasionally. There’s a great bit when Nick (Tobey Maguire) agrees to ask Daisy to tea and Gatsby, his dream finally within reach, reflexively tries to pay him – offering inside information on Wall Street shares – only for Nick to demur that it’s “just a favour”; DiCaprio’s sequence of emotions, worried that he might be sullying the moment with the offer of payment, unable to stop himself, then the mix of relief and gratitude at Nick’s friendship, is very well done. I also liked Mulligan’s poleaxed reaction to her own Big Moment (Daisy’s first glimpse of Gatsby), the way her face goes slack and the shades of alarm and tenderness. She’s a fragile, unglamorous Daisy – to be honest, the role is impossible – her rather puffy doll-face (she always looks like she’s just been crying) adding to the pathos.
There’s just one problem, namely that the lovers reunite midway through Act 2 and there’s still an hour to go. The film sags a little, its romance rather novelettish (Jay and Daisy sit for hours, talking like teenagers) – yet even this is part of the point, because Love itself is an anti-climax. Gatsby’s list of “enchanted objects had diminished by one,” observes Nick, the flashing green light having lost some of its magic after he actually finds Daisy. Twice the film evokes the feeling of being both “within and without” – and that comes from the book but Fitzgerald meant it in the context of Nick being both attracted and repelled by Jazz Age hedonism, whereas Luhrmann extends it to life in general.
Both Nick and Gatsby like to watch, on the outside looking in. Both also tend to idealise. Gatsby wants too much: he wants Daisy to say not only that she loves him but also that she never loved the Other Man, her husband – but that’s just not true, real life (and love) being messier than his longed-for ideal. He’s within and without, fixated on something (a piece of the past) that no longer exists. He’s forgotten that everything fades, which may be why Nick describes him as “the single most hopeful person I’ve ever met”. The Great Gatsby is a brave stab at the impossible – an expensive, spectacular, two-and-a-half-hour epic on the pointlessness of everything. Blame F. Scott Fitzgerald.
DIRECTED BY Baz Luhrmann
STARRING Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire
US/Australia 2013 142 mins