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The Roar of the Twenties

by Ross Douthat

A review of The Great Gatsby

I expected to greatly enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and I wasn’t disappointed. This makes me an unusual specimen among film critics, who have treated the movie mostly with a preemptive dismissiveness, reacting to Luhrmann’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald as though they were watching Michael Bay adapt Henry James. Even writers who acknowledge being entertained by the new big-screen Gatsby have often paired that admission with a hasty assurance that they don’t think much of it as an adaptation — the novel being, of course, “inherently unfilmable” (that’s Slate’s Dana Stevens) and “too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies” (that’s The New Yorker’s David Denby).

This is the kind of thing that people always say about beloved novels, but it’s a very strange thing to say about The Great Gatsby. When I think of unfilmable books, I think of sprawling anatomies, slim psychological studies, dense stream-of-consciousness immersions, and metafictional experiments. I think of James and Marcel Proust; James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy. Or, to pick a more contemporary example, I think of David Mitchell’s complicated epic Cloud Atlas, which inspired an inevitably failed adaptation just last year.

Gatsby, on the other hand, is better suited to a movie adaptation than many classic works. It was written in an era when novelists first found themselves in competition with the cinema, and as much as any work from that period it has a deliberately cinematic feel: The plot is swift-moving and structured with extreme care, the scene-setting is famously vivid (“. . . the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors . . .”), the dialogue has the terse, precise rhythm of a screenplay, and the final act is straight out of film noir.

It’s fair to say that within this architecture there are elements that deserve to be called “unfilmable” — subtleties that literature alone can hint at, intimations that work only on the printed page. Obviously the famous lyricism of Fitzgerald’s prose is particularly hard to translate to the screen, and by far the worst aspect of Luhrmann’s movie is his forced attempt to give the writerliness of Gatsby its due, by framing the story with scenes in which we see Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway actually sitting down and writing it. This frame features a Minnesota sanatorium, an avuncular shrink, and moments when the written words themselves actually appear on the screen — and it’s a painfully bad idea from start to finish.

But this device feels forced in part because it’s unfaithful to Fitzgerald’s novel, requiring invented scenes and clumsy dialogue rather than just the embellishment of what’s already on the page. Elsewhere, Luhrmann mostly sticks to embellishing: He turns up the volume and the va-va-voom, throws Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey on the soundtrack when jazz bands are playing on the screen, but leaves the basic storyline untouched.

His amping-up doesn’t always work, but given that we live in a society whose excesses make flappers and speakeasies seem quaint, it seems like the right way — and maybe the only way — to introduce modern audiences to a story that’s supposed to make you feel the roar of the Twenties. (If you prefer a more exacting historical fidelity, sit through the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow Gatsby and try to stay awake.) And that basic storyline turns out to be strong enough to hold its own amid the noise and gaudiness and soundtrack choices — as, happily, is most of Luhrmann’s cast.

It helps that Jay Gatsby, né James Gatz, is precisely the kind of buoyant boy-man that Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play. It’s a role that evokes some of his most successful past performances: There’s a little bit of Jack Dawson from Titanic (if he’d lost Kate Winslet’s beauty to her rich fiancé) in Gatsby, a little bit of Howard Hughes, and a little bit of Frank Abagnale from Catch Me if You Can. The hint of boyishness and immaturity that hampers DiCaprio in some of his grownup parts is an asset here, and the extraordinary charisma that makes it hard for him to be convincing as, say, a policeman or a suburban husband is entirely appropriate for Gatsby. It’s very hard for me to imagine a better approximation of Fitzgerald’s character than the one that he delivers.

I also liked Carey Mulligan’s Daisy: Her performance makes the character a bit more tremulous and sympathetic than the careless woman of the novel, but that sympathy is useful to the movie, making the tragedy bite a little harder at the end. Maguire’s Nick is probably too weird and emotional for a character mostly defined by his detachment, and the Australian actor Joel Edgerton nails Tom Buchanan’s arrogance and thuggishness but lacks his aura of privilege. But the nearly unknown Elizabeth Debicki is just terrific as Jordan Baker — lovely and large-eyed and impossibly slender, like a Jazz Age magazine cover come to life.

I don’t want to overpraise the movie as a whole: It has big flaws, big holes, scenes and sequences that just don’t work. The purists are right that it isn’t true to everything that makes Fitzgerald’s novel great. But it’s true to many of the many parts of Fitzgerald’s story that would make for an entertaining movie. And this Gatsby, for all its flaws, is that.

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