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The Alcohol Soaked Jazz Age
The Great Gatsby
An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis
Perhaps it’s time we stop insisting that a
movie adaptation be faithful to the book. What’s wrong with directors
building wildly different films on the bones of the same story? We can
easily imagine the results if Picasso and Sargent chose to paint
the same human being. So let’s consider the latest big screen version of “The
Great Gatsby” in that light.
director Baz Luhrmann’s wild eyed take on the Jazz Age. Nick Carraway (Tobey
Maguire) is writing about Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) – the man with
improbable millions from bootlegging and crime who built his castle across the
Long Island cove where his long ago love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) now lives with
her husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). And so the tale of lost love unfolds.
The bones of
the novel are still in place: Gatsby’s belief that the luxury he has created can
win Daisy from Tom, his manipulation of Nick, the accident with the yellow
Duesenberg (though Fitzgerald’s Gatsby actually drove a Rolls-Royce).
It is with
the parties that director Luhrmann takes leave of the book and perhaps of his
senses. He sees the novel as a platform for the extraordinary excess of the ‘20s
and steams full bore into overkill. The musical score, an odd mix of occasional
jazz and modern hip-hop, may be overwhelming, but it does serve to link that era
to our own. As background for the relentless, alcohol soaked parties that
consume the first half of the movie, it becomes a series of unwelcome
exclamation points. Carloads of uninvited guests pour themselves into the
overwhelming excess of Gatsby’s landscape to drink and dance under the robotic
attention of tuxedo clad butlers.
bore the burden of his life-long inability to jettison his past as he tried to
cross the cove to the world he wanted. His writing is laced with the sweet
sadness of being born in St. Paul, MN to parents of Irish descent followed by
Catholic schools – all of which would have been fine if he had chosen any
college other than Princeton where the WASP culture ruled in silent arrogance
during the ‘20s. He carried the tender wound of their social rejection. “Once
again, I was within and without.” Denied the acceptance he craved, Fitzgerald,
in his final novel, created Jay Gatsby who claws and fights his way to Daisy by
force with a fabricated past and criminal fortune.
DiCaprio creates a thoroughly unpleasant Gatsby. Joel Edgerton’s Tom is
hideously effective, and Carey Mulligan is stranded in the role of a thoroughly
empty vessel. Of the time she and Gatsby had lost, “Five lost years struggled on
Daisy’s lips, but all she could manage was ‘I’ve never seen such beautiful
shirts.” As narrator/observer Nick Carraway, Tobey MaGuire seems too weak to
have written the story of the life he calls “a chemical madness.” This movie is
Baz Lurhmann’s imagining of the Jazz Age as painted by Picasso, not Sargent.