We were keen to see The Baz Gatsby and finally got there on the weekend. Alas, dear readers, I fell asleep. Constant Gardener says I snored.

I had gone in anticipation of what CG calls Baz’s “visual plaything” but dozed off during one of the long party scenes and woke up in a 3D room full of orchids with Gatsby anxiously meeting once again the girl of his dreams, Daisy, in her cousin Nick’s cottage. But my eyelids drooped a couple more times. However, I see no reason why Baz can’t do as he likes with this precious book — exquisite in its prose and profoundly American in its theme, I never did find the plot convincing; the coincidences and quasi-melodrama are only elevated by the sheer beauty of the writing.

Brooks Brother ad

The Great Gatsby and All That Bazz

Despite the horrible, but commercially successful Australia (in which the wonderful Hugh Jackman convincingly proved he can mug but not act) I have a weakness for the Baz effect: jumpcutting, amped-up, overwrought gestures dressed to the millimetre by the extraordinary Catherine Martin. But I had lost the Luhrmann feeling; I found Gatsby noisy and dull.

The doggedly middle-aged fogey, David Denby of the New Yorker, made a prediction:

Will young audiences go for this movie, with its few good scenes and its discordant messiness? Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that “The Great Gatsby” should be left in peace.

Denby has been proved doubly wrong — both young and old want to see Gatsby Driving Miss Daisy. On our Snow Queen birthday outing, between us three and a couple of girls and a senior lady in the cinema, there would have been a span of some 70 years. My beef with the Baz Gatsby is not that it is “gaudy” or has too much “glitter,” for which Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster has taken it to task; as CG noted, you don’t go to Baz for deep insights — but that it conjured up the theatre of opera without the emotional effect. (Perhaps Baz was making a super-ironically expensive statement about the vulgarity and value-free hollowness of money as an index of humanity, but I think not.)

J.C. Leyendecker illustration for Arrow Shirts advertisement, 1920s.

The missing caveat

Karl Quinn at Fairfax had a more delicate take, that Baz’s “great failing is one of tone.” Quinn incisively teases out the missing thought. In the book, when the narrator Nick last sees Gatsby, he calls out:

They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.

As Quinn points out, “in the film, Maguire’s Nick pays Gatsby the same compliment. But the caveat is missing.”

That caveat is the pointer to the whole thing, the soul of Gatsby. It is how Nick, perhaps speaking for his creator, can be so ambivalently admiring of the Gatsby character, rather than Macguire’s Carraway seemingly unalloyed bromance with Di Caprio’s Gatsby. Gatsby is the American dream, the migrant dream of the Mayflower, inventing a future out of whole cloth. Gatsby re-invents his past casting himself as the classic foundling and proceeds to seize the day the American Way. The Past can be rewritten, the glorious Future is to be imagined. The melancholy of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is the ingrained American virtue-flaw of ambition — that there is never a Today to rest and in which to be happy; the best always lies in the never never.

There is a brilliantly realised emotional climax — and it is operatic, but that level of feeling came too late for me to feel invested. I could not leave the cinema without being rude to my companions so, with The Baz Gatsby, I too looked forward to the future, to the moment when the curtains fell.

J.C. Leyendecker illustration for Arrow Shirts advertisement, 1920s.


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