By Richard Schickel
“The Great Gatsby” is not, I think, a great novel. Its salient virtue—and it is no small thing—is its silken style. Word for word, it is beautifully written. With a handful of near-perfect short stories, and the self-lacerations of “The Crack-Up,” it is central to the modest, but authentic, achievements of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary life. It’s understandable that the book has been a constant temptation to moviemakers. It’s also understandable that it has never been turned into a fully successful film. I don’t say that’s impossible. I do think it’s damn difficult.
The latest director to be drawn to this gnarly problem is, of course, Baz Luhrmann, whose new “Gatsby” is faithful to its source, well played by a cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio, and yet strangely inert. The cars are great, the tailoring first class, the dialogue perhaps a little over-reliant on the “old sport” locution—yet somehow the thing never catches fire. For all its penny-bright felicities of manner, “lumbering” is a descriptive that comes reluctantly to mind.
The essential problem with the film is that it is way overproduced. The novel, greatly to its credit, is a lean machine, one of those near-magical works that has scarcely a word out of place. The movie, by contrast, is one long party. It wants to have fun-fun-fun. I sort of lost track, but the diversions are, believe me, numerous and rather desperate. They are well-enough staged—Luhrmann is good at that sort of thing—but there is more substance to “Gatsby” than crowds of people doing the Charleston on into the endless nights, forced smiles pasted on their faces. You’re weary of it—and by the time you reach its conclusion (the picture is almost two-and-a-half hours long), its tragedy is muted. It is just an ending. “Boats against the current” and all that stuff. In this context, what, if anything, does the famous tagline about being “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” really mean? In this movie, at least, the words seem an attempt to impose some sort of cosmic meaning on a narrative that is basically lacking in that quality.
This film has been finished for something like a year, which gives a rich new meaning to the phrase “long-awaited.” But you can see why the studio dithered over it. It wants, at times, to be sort of jazzy. At other times, it wants to be a kind of morality play. But it ends up being neither. It is mainly just a kind of pretty misfire.
It is also a story that is mixed inextricably with the mythic qualities of Scott Fitzgerald’s life. Published in 1925 to mixed reviews and relatively modest sales, the book in its way haunted the rest of his life, a work that never engendered a follow-up of comparable quality. In the 1930s, he kept writing, doing stints in Hollywood, doing his best to care for his wife, Zelda, and their child (he was, in his way, a dutiful man) and died prematurely at 44, leaving behind an unfinished novel and, many thought, an unfinished life.
His death, however, stirred many people to long thoughts about unfulfilled promises. And there was “Gatsby,” waiting for rediscovery, and, more important, reappreciation. It was crucial to the elevation of his reputation, which seems to me somewhat overblown. The body of his work does not quite measure up in weight and importance to the greatest figures in American writing. But it is not nothing.
And “Gatsby”? It will, of course, endure. But I do think it is perhaps time to give it a rest—certainly from further movie adaptations. It is a graceful and necessary novel. But it is a novel. It lacks the dramatic arc of fictions more adaptable to the other media. This is no bad thing. It simply means that it is true to the demands of its genre. It still awaits a filmmaker with a genius for clarification of its surprising challenges. I think it will wait a very long time for him or her to emerge. Meantime, we will have to make do with earnest, sober, failed attempts like Luhrmann’s—hardly a tragedy, but yet a disappointment.