Parkland Press

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

'Gatsby': Good, not 'Great'

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

Most of us have read "The Great Gatsby," or are familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 book, esteemed by many literary experts as "The Great American Novel."

Several versions of "Gatsby" have made it to the big and small screen, including a 1926 silent film disparaged by none other than Zelda and F. Scott, and a 1974 movie starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby.

Transforming favorite books to the big screen is always a challenge, even for the best directors. Popular recent examples include young adult novels such as the "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" series, each of which has been generally well-received by movie-going fans and non-fans.

However, with classic literature, i.e., so-called serious fiction, the misses outweigh the hits. There's many a slip betwixt page and screen.

Such is the case with director Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," which is at once audacious and, despite its touted 3D format (which I reviewed), surprisingly flat.

In acting, dialogue and editing, this "Gatsby" has more in common with a TV mini-series than a big-screen movie. That said, Luhrmann always puts something interesting up there on the screen ("Moulin Rouge," 2001; "Romeo + Juliet," 1996) and "Gatsby" is no exception.

Accompanying me to the screening were Michael "Movie Maven" Gontkosky and my son Elias, both of whom had interesting post-viewing observations about "Gatsby," hence, their inclusion here. And that's the kind of film Luhrmann makes: stimulating, controversial and conversation pieces.

Elias pointed out that "Gatsby" was a change from the usual superhero action films he sees ("Iron Man 3," for example, for which he earned his Credit Readers Anonymous membership card by insisting his friends stay to the very end and they weren't disappointed). Elias's comment prompted me to respond that "Gatsby" is a non-action movie.

Really, not much happens in "Gatsby," nor (and here, American Lit majors and professors, I'm going out on a limb and probably sawing it off) in Fitzgerald's novel. We have lots of observations from Nick Carraway (wide-eyed and wired Tobey Maguire) about Jay Gatsby (dynamic and engaging Leonardo DiCaprio) and Daisy Buchanan (glumly aloof Carey Mulligan), with Tom Buchanan (curiously disengaged Joel Edgerton) mostly on the periphery, along with Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), the latter as window-dressing, er, costume-dressing.

Elias said "Gatsby" incorporates some of the most effective 3D, with lots of zooms, image manipulation and sequences that build as if in a dream.

The complex combination of the star-power of Maguire and DiCaprio, huge cast, impeccable production design (from opening old-movie sequence, to sumptuous deco sets, detailed props down to a dual cigar-cigarette lighter, gorgeous costumes, spiffy yellow Duisenberg and blue Auburn, and alternating frenetic and slo-mo camera work), eye-popping party scenes, impressive CGI, and dazzling special effects can't disguise the fact that "Gatsby" is simple melodrama. One could argue (and don't get me started here) that the same case could be made for the novel. The observation that "She looks like she could be on the cover of Vogue" cuts both ways. It symbolizes the film's strengths and weaknesses.

Be that as it may, or may not be, while Luhrmann seems to be ever reaching for cinema artistry, or at least a movie on the order of a "Citizen Cane" (1941), "Gone With The Wind" (1939) or "Giant" (1956), what we get with "Gatsby" the movie is the whiff of what was once charitably called evening soap opera, such as "Dallas" (1978 - '91), complete with what Andy Warhol described as "consternation fades."

Part of the problem with "Gatsby" is structure. Luhrmann's scene assembling works against constructing montage. Just when a scene gets rolling, the voice of Nick Carraway interrupts, booming in our ears, distracting our minds and diverting our attention. It takes us right out of the scene and the film.

Luhrmann floats actual words from Fitzgerald's novel across the screen, as if rising like smoke from Carrraway's typewriter. The film's conceit is that Carraway is talking to his psychiatrist (Carraway's classified as "Morbidly Alcoholic," to which F. Scott could relate), and reflecting on the protagonist, similar to the framing device Orson Welles used in "Citizen Kane." Of course, Baz Luhrmann is no Orson Welles.

Much has been made of Luhrmann again using contemporary music in his period-set films. That's the least of the worries with "Gatsby." The music of Jay Z, Beyonce and Bryan Ferry gives an emotional wallop to many of the scenes. Still, the more effective underscoring utilizes George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924).

At its core, "Gatsby" the movie, and one might make the case, "Gatsby" the novel is lurid tabloid romance, Police Gazette crime photoplay and dime-novel sentiments. The hit and run of Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), Buchanan's paramour, and her husband George's (Jason Clarke) revenge shooting of Gatsby is the stuff not of legend, but the police blotter.

Fortunately, Fitzgerald's poetry rises above the prosaic because Luhrmann, in the screenplay he co-wrote with collaborator Craig Pearce, has the intelligence and respect for primary source material to retain key observations and dialogue.

Carraway describes Gatsby as "The single most hopeful person I've ever met." A ringing telephone possesses "shrill metallic urgency." There's the "wild promise" of New York City. The film concludes with one of the most elegiac lines ever written in American literature: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" is moving forward in the wrong direction. Still, it's entertaining, intriguing and worth a look.

Just don't go expecting to see The Great American Movie. The merits of that will be debated for years to come as will The Great American Novel.

"The Great Gatsby," MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13) for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language; Genre: Drama, Romance; Run time: 2 hours, 20 min.; Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: Attention Red Carpet shoppers: "The Great Gatsby" end credits note that Kerry Mulligan's gown is by Prada. Also credited is Jay Leno's Garage. Director Baz Luhrmann's crew recorded the sounds of The "Tonight Show" host's Duisenberg because the Duisenberg in the movie is a Fiberglas replicar with a Ford engine.

Box Office, May 17: "Star Trek: Into Darkness" lit up the box office, No. 1 with $70.5 million, weekend; $84 million, since May 15 opening; ending the two-week straight No. 1 run of "Iron Man 3," $35.1 million, $337 million, three weeks;

3. "The Great Gatsby" $23.4 million, $90.1 million, two weeks; 4. "Pain & Gain," $3.1 million, $46.5 million, four weeks; 5. "The Croods," $2.7 million, $176.7 million, nine weeks; 6. "42," $2.7 million, $88.7 million, six weeks; 7. "Mud," $2.1 million, $11.5 million, four weeks; 8. "Oblivion," $2.2 million, $85.5 million, five weeks; 9. "Peeples," $2.1 million, $7.8 million, two weeks; 10. "The Big Wedding," $1.1 million, $20.1 million, four weeks

Unreel, May 24:

"Epic," PG: A teen girl is transported to a deep forest. The Lehigh Valley's Amanda Seyfried has the lead voice role in the animated family film. The voice talent includes Christoph Waltz, Colin Farrell, Beyonce and Pitbull.

"Fast & Furious 6," PG-13. Dwayne Johnson is back on board with Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, as is Michelle Rodriguez in the action thriller about bringing down rogue agents specializing in vehicular warfare.

"The Hangover Part III," R: You think they would have learned, but how could they when it's so much fun for movie-goers and so profitable for the movie studio? Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis are again directed by Todd Phillips in the raunchy comedy.

"Before Midnight," R: Richard Linklater directs Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who are back for the third in the romantic drama series.

Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site, lehighvalleypress. com; the Times-News web site,; and hear them on "Lehigh Valley Art Salon," 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays, WDIY 88.1 FM, Email Paul Willistein pwillistein@