Monday, May 27, 2013
How Great Is This Gatsby?
I carped about the casting: Leonardo DiCaprio, although a fine actor, didn't have the suggestion of a hidden past as say, a younger Jon Hamm or Johnny Depp might. Carey Mulligan wasn't pretty enough to be the decorative trophy Gatsby wanted and I required. Tobey Maguire was a little too eccentric to portray the bland narrator, Nick Carraway. My nephew, Will Friedwald, jazz columnist and popular music expert, had written a column outlining the very specific songs F. Scott Fitzgerald had woven into his book, and he objected to the anachronistic interpolation of new tunes and even Rhapsody in Blue (which was written years after The Great Gatsby takes place) into this story.
I expected the mishmash to be a repulsive mess. But then I recalled how much I had loved Lurmann's mishmash called Moulin Rouge years ago. I announced, "It won't be Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, and it won't be my Gatsby, but maybe it's worth a look."
I loved everything about the movie. Well, maybe the parties were overlong and not that interesting unless I had been imbibing whatever the partygoers were--but that's a small thing in such a big picture. The sets and costumes--although maybe not pinpointed to 1921, but more of a generic 1920's mode for effect--were dazzling and quaint at the same time. The 20's hadn't really begun to roar at that point, but the era was waking up. It makes a better movie if you push some of those things around a little, like the Rhapsody in Blue even if it had not yet been written. Such a rhapsody was swirling around Jay Gatsby, taunting him, spurring his aspirations.
DiCaprio showed me things about Gatsby I had not grasped before. I had seen him as a clueless climber, looking at Daisy through the rose-colored haze of a man in love with a face, a look, a semblance of the one thing he thought mattered: Money. DiCaprio's Gatsby was smitten with something more--his dream of the life he wanted, his fantasy of the woman who would make his hopes and dreams worthwhile. He loved her because he thought she was the key to happiness. He thought, because of the social position she was born into, that her love could transform him into his own dream of a man. And Leonardo DiCaprio accomplished this acting feat mostly by the way he looked at her--the yearning, the fear of missing the mark, the total inability to see how shallow and uninteresting she really was. He conveyed all of Gatsby's yearning and fear just with the look on his face.
Carey Mulligan was almost pretty enough, but she gave this Daisy something else instead. She was neurotic. I thought Daisy was a lightweight who had nothing going for her but looks, but at least Ms. Mulligan imbued her with a sense of conflict about what she was to do. Not a conscience, but an awareness that there might be something immoral going on here. Tobey Maguire is always engaging, and he was in this but he added an undercurrent of thwarted passion. Elizabeth Debicki was spot-on, a stunning Jordan Baker. The one wrong note in casting was Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. He had no old-money charm or indolence--in fact the actor might have done better as the service station guy. I would have thought he would have had to be at least good-looking to have landed Daisy. And why they cast Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim I shall never understand.
But the principals carried the show. I admit I wasn't totally on board until the shirt scene, which I was waiting for with bated breath, certain they wouldn't get it right. They got it exactly right.