What’s so great about Gatsby? I’ve never quite got the point of Scott Fitzgerald’s book. The closer you examine it, the more it seems to fade from view. It seems to exist most vividly in the minds of those who’ve never read it, for whom it presumably conjures up simply an impression or a mood, or a set of social mannerisms. I’ve read it twice, years apart, but still have to be reminded how it ends. And as a portrait of a totally self-invented tycoon, it was long ago surpassed by Citizen Kane.
What I do remember however is the first big set piece, the party which establishes Gatsby as this brooding but mysteriously blank absentee host. I’d bet that for most people this is the first (and only?) thing that comes to mind when the book is mentioned. By the looks of it the Australian director Baz Luhrmann understands this completely, because he makes this scene the (somewhat premature) centrepiece of his new, much-hyped large-scale screen adaptation.
Large-scale hardly covers it. Luhrmann, whose work such as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! is loved and hated in equal measure, has given this slim little novel the truly epic treatment, one which, if not breaking its back, at least exposes its sheer fragility. It’s the most genuinely sumptuous film I have seen for years; not just the money but the whole bank is up there on the screen. CGI has been at work of course, and there is the now obligatory 3D treatment, but these are peripheral to the extraordinarily lavish styling of every single scene, an approach which manages to be both detailed and expansive at the same time. That party scene immerses you in braying crowds and sequins and fountains, and ends with a spectacular firework display against the background of a prettied-up version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody. It’s beautifully confident and shows the director’s obvious love of movies and what cinema can do, and it made my neck tingle.
Of course there is too a cartoonish element to all this. As with his previous films, Luhrmann has created a kind of hyper-realistic version of events, and the people and places that shape them. No furnishings are that co-ordinated in real life, no mist that ghostly or grass that green and manicured. Scenes are assembled and actors positioned with the lovingness and care of a Fortnum’s shop window at Christmas. There is less of the maniac editing which made some viewers of Moulin Rouge! actually nauseous, and the modern sensibility which crowded Romeo + Juliet, which repelled some and delighted others, is largely cut back here to the use on the soundtrack of modern hip-hop and Beyoncé. But there remains the heavy, rich stylisation which flies in the face of the fake realism of many modern films. It might be kitsch but it is not quite camp, and it represents perhaps our only chance nowadays to experience true cinematic escapism.
If there’s a whiff of a But hanging here, it is because of this: The Great Gatsby becomes very tedious. Some of this is the fault of the director — there’s no excuse for a two-and-a-half-hour running time, and however wonderfully rendered they all are, some of the scenes could easily have gone missing unnoticed. Shop windows can be enchanting but usually only as an adornment, seen in passing. But chiefly the boredom arises from the fact that nothing very much happens. As narratives go, Gatsby is as slender as it gets. The last big adaptation, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in 1974, suffered for the same reason. It was a very big movie at the time, and even influenced fashion for a while, but while strong on atmosphere it remained a hard and unrewarding slog for the audience.
As if conscious of this, Luhrmann’s actors work hard, entering into the spirit and style of the thing while retaining a refreshing lack of distancing irony. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast — or perhaps that is because he reminds me of a young Orson Welles. In any case, he invests a lot of care in creating the tightly-spun awkwardness and uncertainty of a rich man who has come from nothing but can still be made to sweat by the suggestion of a faux pas. Carey Mulligan, the voguish young actress who has created a thriving career out of a slightly wonky smile, looks great in the clothes and has mastered the period superficialities, but fails to convey quite what it is about Daisy Buchanan that has made Gatsby devote his life and riches to getting her back. Whole stretches of the film go by in which she says little, and when she does pipe up she seems merely spoilt and petulant. As the narrator (and framing device) Nick Carraway, played by Toby Maguire (Spiderman to your kids), is a fixed sober point, dazzled by his glamorous neighbour, before ending the proceedings a prisoner of the bottle.
Could it be that it is not Carey Mulligan but F. Scott Fitzgerald who fails to convey what it was that was so special about Daisy? The problem is not this or any other film adaptation: she and Jay are simply not one of literature’s great romantic couples. The obstacles they face seem flimsy, their back-stories and motivations weak. Most importantly, they are simply not that interesting, and nor for the most part is how they spend their lives. Despite the exquisite settings, it’s all remarkably inconsequential. As Oscar Levant once said about Hollywood: Strip away all the phoney tinsel and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.