Hollywood never has had much luck with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald never had much luck in Hollywood. The only film he ever got screen credit for script writing was Frank Borzage’s 1938 wartime romance, Three Comrades. And, as if the injury done to Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon wasn't bad enough, the author was played by Gregory Peck in a booze-soaked treatment of his affair with a gossip columnist that was so awful that even Deborah Kerr couldn't make it respectable.
Baz Luhmann’s The Great Gatsby, which has recently been released on Blu ray and DVD, is the fourth attempt at adapting Fitzgerald’s economically rich novel about a hopeless romantic and the vapid object of his adoration. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay Gatsby inspires both fear and pity. He demonstrates explosive outbursts of emotion that are counterpointed with a faith in the power of true love to transcend obstacles that would put Cyrano to shame. The performance is a step forward. Robert Redford, in an equally lavish 1974 version, was just a well-dressed bore.
The green light that shines across Long Island Sound from the end of a pier is a beacon to Gatsby. The pier is part of the estate where Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) lives with her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton). Gatsby has loved Daisy for most of his life and, although he is sure that she returns his timeless affection, the water is symbolic of the gulf that has existed between them. Daisy has drifted in the placid sea of affluence, but even attaining great wealth has not calmed the psychological storms that batter Jay Gatsby.
The Buchanans are frequent guest at the glitzy, frenetic parties that Gatsby throws to be closer to Daisy. It is the Jazz Age and the idle rich live as if the secret to getting through a vacant, pointless existence is to keep moving fast enough to render reality slightly blurred.
For a reason never made especially clear in the script written by Luhmann and Craig Pearce, Gatsby himself becomes a source of fascination to an aspiring writer named Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who is also acquainted with the captivating Daisy. Nick provides the excessive voice-overs to advance the movie’s murky narrative allowing Mr. Luhmann to exercise his preference for the visual aspects of the movie. The approach is fine for travelogues, but for the transference of literary novels into popular entertainment, it is always perilous and frequently ponderous.
Except for DiCaprio’s simmering performance -- and a nicely understated one from Mulligan -- there is very little to recommend here. Even Luhmann’s deft touch for grand imagery is oddly lacking. The party sequences look claustrophobic and the sets seemed overdressed even for the wild and crazy period they are supposed to evoke. While it may have seemed daring to utilize rap music in a movie set during the roaring twenties, it was an idea that should have been shelved immediately. Nothing recalls the Jazz Age as strongly as the music that was born out of it. The one aspect of the Redford version that I recall most vividly was the use of the song “What’ll I Do?” as a recurring theme. It was more effective, in its quiet way, of capturing Fitzgerald’s original intent for his doomed protagonist than all the blood, sweat, and tears so expensively on display here.