/ 17 May 2013

Not the movie of the week: The Great Gatsby

Wild party: Tobey Maguire stars as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.
Wild party: Tobey Maguire stars as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Of the various contenders for the title of Great American Novel, F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 work The Great Gatsby is one of the shortest, which is why many young people have had and continue to have it imposed upon them as a school setwork. It’s a fifth the length of Moby-Dick, a third of The Grapes of Wrath, half a Catch-22. And let’s not even mention John Dos Passos or the Thomases Wolfe and Pynchon.

Its length or lack thereof should lend The Great Gatsby readily to a cinematic adaptation, but its actual content may militate against that. Certainly it has the wild parties of the Roaring Twenties, which offer spectacle in spades, but the story itself is dependent on the dawning awareness of the narrator, Nick Carraway, in his developing relationship with Jay Gatsby, the mysterious, super-rich neighbour who throws the aforementioned wild parties at his enormous Hearst-like mansion on Long Island.

Nick’s growing awareness is the novel’s arc, and Fitzgerald develops it not with abrupt plot points, except at the close, but rather with the quiet, observant subtlety of an EM Forster. It’s a novel about glamour and spectacle and illusion, but it is very plainly written (another reason it’s a setwork); for the most part, there are few fireworks in Fitzgerald’s prose.

The same cannot be said of Baz Luhrmann’s film of The Great Gatsby. Here, there are most definitely, literally, fireworks. Lots of fireworks. Fireworks in 3D. Gatsby himself appears, when first we see him properly, framed by spurting showers of multicoloured light.

But then the whole film is fireworks: visual pyrotechnics that just keep coming at you. If the camera can make you feel like you’re coming in to land on a lawn in a hang- glider, it will do it. If you want to feel as though you’re soaring above New York in the thrusting 1920s, from its glittering skyscrapers to its heaving ashpits, you can have lots of that too.

Those are the big, grandiose gestures, but there is also much fussiness at the micro level: there isn’t a possible match cut Luhrmann doesn’t exploit, not an opportunity to pull focus that he neglects. If he can add a layer of text, handwritten or typed, and/or morph that into a flutter of snowflakes, he will. And, every 20 seconds or so, just in case you’d forgotten, he reminds you that you’re watching a 3D movie.

Bear in mind, too, that all this MagiCam somersaulting around is taking place on top of a mise en scène already packed more tightly, fully and busily than the stage of the Met when Zeffirelli’s doing Aïda. There’s so much going on, so relentlessly, on the visual plane that by the end of this extravaganza one’s very eyeballs feel dehydrated. It’s fair to say that the main action in the movie is its cinematography and visual effects, beside which the sad strivings of the mere humans in the narrative are as chaff in the wind.

To balance that effect, perhaps, Luhrmann inserts copious amounts of Fitzgerald’s prose in voice-over. Mostly, it comes across as pointless decoration in a space already decorated beyond pointlessness, as well as trying clumsily to get a bit of that serious literary patina on to the movie’s surface too. In turn justifying that voice-over, the framing narrative in which Nick tells his story to some avuncular or grandfatherly shrink is just annoying.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby is, as far as one can tell amid the sound and fury, rather good: he wears the hollowness well. I couldn’t buy Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, mugging wide-eyed naivety for all he’s worth, but that may be an effect of three ridiculous Spider-Man movies. The rest of the cast is mere décor, really, barely characters at all — and, amazingly enough for such a “visual director”, they are mostly pretty ugly.

Gatsby’s extravagant parties are good to see extravagantly staged, and I think Luhrmann, for all his pyrotechnics, keeps the period look together well without being slavish. (That said, one can’t help wondering about a more strictly period rendition: What might a Merchant-Ivory have made of Gatsby? How might a Paul Thomas Anderson have treated it?) At the same time, I enjoyed the way Luhrmann, always good with a soundtrack, funks up the music of the era. I liked the way his sky camera shows the ashpits that lie between the luxury of Long Island and the shiny city, and his use of World War I and stock market footage helps to set the scene. But these are small moments lost in a long gale of over-the-top visuals.

Fitzgerald’s novel had something to say about dreams and illusions, and about how they can clash violently with reality. This movie of The Great Gatsby, by contrast, has no reality in it at all, no realism. It’s sold on illusion.