Lucky the [few] viewers of Baz Luhrman’s “The Great Gatsby” who come to the film virgin of the book, without even a brush with it in high-school. They can dive into the vulgarity of the jazz age depiction, replete with fireworks, flowing champagne, Charleston and period sound-track (with a dash of Jay-Z for the would-be cute and saucy note, much like the sneakers in Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”).
They can spend a dazzling two-plus hours not worrying their pretty little heads about the eternal question of screen adaptations of great novels. For others, such as this critic–call it a generation thing– they will find it appalling. The only thought that sustained me throughout was that, just as for the miserable “Les Misérables” until recently showing at a Cineplex near you, the original literary version keeps shining through. There’s only so much a carnie flush with funds ($150 million at last count) can do, slicing and dicing it to show off as amusing irreverence and originality—both sadly lacking.
Not to say that a stiff and duly worshipful rendering of Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby” is preferable. Jack Clayton’s 1974 version attempted just such a faithful conversion from printed page to screen but didn’t get our blood pumping either.
So far, reviews of the new “Gatsby” have unfavorably compared the Clayton version to the kitsch, colorful present one, considering di Caprio’s performance far superior to Redford’s—the older actor haunted back then by his pretty boy reputation. Cast comparisons may not be fair, especially as concerns the main character. Gatsby is a fake with pretensions to an elegant society that would chew him and spit him out as soon as accept him. Di Caprio is too physical, too vital to convey either this insecurity or his Daisy obsession–one senses he might walk away any minute, pressed by less romantic concerns. Redford, despite a rather pale interpretation, showed the necessary vulnerability. Also, evanescent Mia Farrow probably made more sense than round-cheeked Carey Mulligan as the spoiled rotten wealthy socialite who doesn’t know her own mind. And then of course, there was Karen Black as Myrtle, as always stealing every scene she was in. Which, in the present version, leaves perfectly cast Tobey Maguire in what is the principal part, if not the title one, narrating the sorry tale of hubris and blood in his oddly appealing quavering monocorde.
In the end, Luhrman’s “Gatsby,” set in an agitated and lurid jazz age, suffers from a very contemporary disease: irony and the inability to tell a story straight, obscuring the absence of both imagination and talent.