“The rich are different from you and me,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway in the famous anecdote. “Yes,” replied Hemingway in terse wise guy mode, “they have more money.” Hemingway’s reply is what makes it a classic joke about dueling sensibilities. But Fitzgerald was right. And that’s one of the things that “The Great Gatsby,” opening Friday, is about.
There is so much more to being rich in America – for all our putative democracy – than merely “having money.”And that is why for film critics, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” was, quite frankly, among the most dreaded film projects of the 21st century. Fitzgerald’s best-written novel isn’t merely a great American masterwork – one that readers have long suspected of literary perfection – it is, in its permanent status in secondary school syllabuses, so often one of the primal literary experiences of American teenagers. It’s one of the classic moments where our children discover what literature is, in all its haunting art.
And here is this big, unspeakably vulgar version of it by the famous Australian apostle of free-flown cinematic excess (“Moulin Rouge”) Luhrmann, complete with deliberately anachronistic rap music, absurd swooping 3-D CGI effects as his tale whipsaws across Long Island Sound into midtown Manhattan. He even takes the most grandiose moment of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and uses it as accompaniment to the moment 40 minutes into the film when Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) appears to us for the first time.
If Jay Gatsby had been a film director, Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is the adaptation he might have made of Fitzgerald’s exemplary literary art – a completely ingenuous and wrongheaded monument to everything that Hollywood money can buy, a shameless wallow in excess that can imagine no other point to finery than vulgar display. It’s a crazily stylized and artificial version of the occasional gentle surrealism that Fitzgerald constructed from the reality of the 1920s.
When we first see gambler Meyer Wolfsheim in Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” – the fictional character loosely based on the very real gambler/gangster Arnold Rothstein – he looks like a hirsute Hindu Maharajah wearing the most expensively tailored gangster clothing purchasable in the Western Hemisphere. In other words, he’s a loony 3-D closeup of everything WASP America in the ’20s might have conceived of as Other when, if he’d wanted, Luhrmann could simply have gone online and instantly conjured up pictures of the very real Arnold Rothstein to give him casting ideas. (The real guy, in most pictures, looks a bit like Milton Berle.)
But just as Gatsby’s narrator Nick Carraway likes Jay Gatsby enormously – the grand, self-created myth conjured out of nothing but money by the formerly “dirt poor” James Gatz of North Dakota – it’s hard, I think, not to feel huge affection for this energetically stylized version of Fitzgerald’s austerely lyrical and tragic novel.
Nick Carraway’s little rental cottage (80 bucks a month in 1920s prices) sat right next to Jay Gatsby’s unimaginably luxurious “palace” on the “New Money” West Egg of Long Island. Meanwhile, across the sound on the “Old Money” East Egg, live Tom and Daisy Buchanan, embodiments of all the insular, xenophobic entitlements of “old money” where there are, after all, few pleasures greater than the contempt one can freely express for those who don’t share it. Tom, the philandering polo player, lectures some dinner party guests, in one scene, on the perils of rapidly advancing non-white races.
Wealth, after all, is merely the accumulation of more and more money and who knows where it’s been? Or where it came from? When Fitzgerald says that Daisy’s voice sounded like money, though, he’s referring to something else, a very specific vocal sound that American moviegoers might know from Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and (my nomination for the actress who should have played Daisy in the 1949 version) Gene Tierney.
In the hopes of luring his beloved Daisy, Gatsby, meanwhile, throws the grandest parties anywhere in his vast, rambling , absurdly overstaffed “palace” – open-house spectaculars full of senators, movie stars, sports luminaries, musicians, everyone in that democratic aristocracy whose name might be known to others that one has never met.
In one of the movie’s most cunning scenes, we’re reminded that for all Nick’s affection for Gatsby, the mysterious zillionaire himself is not immune to the class barbarisms of wealth. In full earshot of his disapproving domestic staff, Gatsby, at one point, refers on the phone to his concern for them only “as long as they can cook and make beds.” Luhrmann isn’t such an innocent apostle of cinematic ostentation that he forgets that money and class are the decidedly ambiguous stars of the tale.
Those made of flesh – the actors that is – are a different, complex story. DiCaprio is a vastly better Gatsby than Robert Redford in Jack Clayton’s somnolent animated magazine ad from 1974. Tobey Maguire is a better Nick Carraway than expected, even though Luhrmann’s conceit has him narrating the movie in later life as he lives in a sanitarium suffering from “morbid alcoholism” a la Fitzgerald himself.
On the other hand, Carey Mulligan is an earnest pro going through Daisy motions even though she wouldn’t be likely to obsess anyone, much less Jay Gatsby.
A lot of other Luhrmann meat puppets do their best here – Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, Elizabeth Debicki as Daisy’s golf pro pal Jordan Baker, Isla Fisher as Tom’s proletarian mistress Myrtle.
Luhrmann can’t begin to disguise how much more interested he is in the engine roar of Gatsby’s customized yellow Duesenberg convertible. It’s a real thing that only obscenely plentiful money could have bought – just like all the careening CGI effects in his 3-D movie that sometimes seem to begin where Busby Berkley left off.
In his naive innocence, though, Luhrmann thinks he can finally take Fitzgerald’s masterpiece off the library shelf and install it somewhere permanent inside the heart of American mass culture. In his inappropriate, ridiculous and ridiculously likable movie version of it, he will, I think, come closer than anyone else ever has.
The Great Gatsby
3 1/2 stars
Starring: Leonardio DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki and Isla Fisher
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Running time: 143 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and profanity.
The Lowdown: Wildly stylized adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel about New Money vs. Old Money on 1920’s Long Island.