Well, I went to see the movie. We’ve been a bunch of movie hounds this month: Iron Man 3, Gatsby, and today we are going to see Star Trek. I rather suspect Gatsby will ring in at the bottom in terms of my preference for a second viewing. Hardly surprising, I know. But as promised, I picked it apart while I was watching it, so I’ll record my thoughts here.
Hits: I’m probably a tiny voice alone on this one, but I actually thought DiCaprio and Mulligan acquitted themselves nicely in this, and I thought they left Redford and Farrow in the dust.
Redford just seemed sort of wooden, as if loooong pauses and choppy speech made him mysterious. DiCaprio does a better job of adding that “something’s off” layer — that thing you recognize on all good liars, but can’t quite articulate. The wrong note they hit in a casual sentence, a certain cock of the wrist — something you see from the corner of your eye but that disappears when you try to focus on it. He overshoots in a couple places, but I even liked that — you can’t be a 100 percent successful fraud all the time, and where the actor isn’t, he could be doing it on purpose to help the audience out.
Mulligan likewise added a more nuanced view of her character. Farrow always struck me as a hysterical dingbat — she got all the surface mannerisms of Daisy, but seemed to play her like that was all there was to her. In Farrow’s hands, Daisy is a horrible person because she’s too stupid to know better and she’s pinballing around because she’s no more than a helpless female. With Mulligan, we see that Daisy is a horrible person by choice. She’s shallow and careless and frivolous and cold because that is the persona she has cultivated. You can see she’s got a brain, and that there are motivations behind her actions. To me, this makes her an even more despicable person, because she does know better and goes ahead anyway. (I admit, I also thought Farrow was kind of ugly to be playing the dazzling, amazing woman that inspired a fellow to pin his entire life’s course on her. It’s much easier to believe that of Mulligan.)
The other good thing about the movie is that it’s very pretty. It’s Baz Luhrmann. Of course it’s pretty.
It’s pretty. Like I said in my last post, the novel wasn’t written as a glowing homage. You were supposed to see the decay setting in. Luhrmann would have been better off adding touches here and there of Fitzgerald’s puritannical judgment of what was going on. By the end of the movie, you should be able to see the circles under their eyes, some paint chipping off the porch railings, some dirt on the floor. You don’t.
Nick. Everything about Nick is wrong. Nick should get a lawyer and sue. I hated the rehab construct, partly because it was an annoying deviation from the book, partly because I thought it was a lazy, quick fix for all the pretty (his one nod to the party being over, rather than using small cues throughout the movie to show the party was ending). I hated the writing on the screen. I hated Tobey Maguire’s monotone, and I hated that he acted like a dork. Nick was not a dork. We’ve all known a Nick, the guy who sits back and watches and absorbs and judges, the guy you trust implicitly because he’s smart and dependable and shows up when you need him and makes for a good moral compass. This Nick sucks and needs a boot to the head.
The other big thing missing from the movie were so, so many moments of casual significance. The book is really short, and there are several lines that a character tosses out there, nobody reacts, and the story forges ahead. But if you stop and think about the line, some aspect of the story gets turned on its head and you have to reconsider it completely. Things I wish had been included:
— When Gatsby tells Nick he’s from the Midwest — specifically, San Francisco.
— The line about Daisy’s voice being full of money.
— The whole thing about the books in Gatsby’s library — they’re real, but they’ve never been read. (This also would have been a fun thing to show new audiences — that once upon a time, books came in such a way that you had to cut the pages apart to read them. Sort of like having a library full of DVDs that still have that annoying plastic tape across the top – although even that is becoming a dated reference.)
— Gatsby never meets Daisy’s daughter. That, to me, was the most casually significant moment in the book. It’s a lot harder to undo a past that has created another whole human being whose presence must be reckoned with. And I think DiCaprio could have done a really good job with it.
Overall, I went in expecting a 2 out of 10 and came out thinking I’d seen something that rated about a 4. As such, I was mildly pleased, but I do hope someone comes along and does it better someday. I mean, while we were at the theater, we saw a trailer for Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Can you imagine what he’d do with Gatsby? That’s the movie I want to see.
What would I have done differently? Quick list:
As I said, more visual cues. More signs that the end is nigh. Shooting the valley of ashes in black and white, not that weird CGI stuff.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Nick. (If they’d had a decent actor, they also could have explored more about Nick’s goings-on with Jordan. That whole careless driver motif vanished in the movie.)
Or, going further afield, I’d shoot for a modern-day retelling. I didn’t mind so much that they updated the soundtrack. There are some references in the book that fly right by if you don’t get them, but they also aren’t crucial to an appreciation of the story at a different level. But if you’re going to update, why not go hard? Part of what made Gatsby great is that it was a snapshot of a time and place. But history has plastered so many notions on to that time and place that now if you go there, you are stuck in a caricature. Update the story to something people can relate to. Gatsby as a crack dealer. Gatsby as a junk bond trader. That’s part of why I liked Wall Street—there are a lot of Gatsby notes struck in that movie, which was also a thoroughly modern snapshot of its moment in time.
So that’s it. I’m off the Gatsby kick. My next batch of posts will be un-Gatsby. They will, in fact, be about actual, modern-day writers who are among my very favorite people.