Having rendered some of the more majestic prose in American fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald is often cited for a line that has always seemed to me to make very little sense: “There are no second acts in American lives.” What? Of course there are. Second chances are the stuff American dreams are made of. Let’s not forget Richard Nixon. Redemption may not be American. But America, by definition, is all about redemption.
The line is not from The Great Gatsby. (It’s from Fitzgerald’s notes for The Last Tycoon). But any confusion is understandable. After all, Jay Gatsby—the wealthy, polished, slightly shadowy Horatio Alger-ish centerpiece of what well may be the finest American (and the most American) novel ever written—believes he can change the past with money. It’s the key to the whole novel. And that he fails to pull it off makes the book the glorious thing it is.
Director Baz Luhrmann fails, too, in his shiny new, absurdist, big-screen 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and there’s nothing glorious about it. Luhrmann seems to regard Fitzgerald’s book the way hardcore martini drinkers regard vermouth: its inclusion is necessary, one supposes, if one is going to make this thing one calls a martini. But less, to Luhrmann’s mind, is certainly more.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald is the only thing Luhrmann provides less of. In telling a tale that found its transcendence in the holy place between the author’s nuanced prose and Gatsby’s blinkered dream, Luhrmann’s use of computer-generated stimuli is like a pneumatic hammer that has gone out of control and is manically pinging the brain-pans of everyone in the audience. Nothing ever stops moving, racing, cutting, twitching—save for when Luhrmann suddenly shifts into slo-mo, for no apparent reason, or for reasons that betray his malformed feel for drama itself.
Do they still read Gatsby in high school? That might explain the strategy of the movie, which seems a fairly contemptuous pandering to short attention spans, a disinterest in subtle storytelling, a primal response to something shiny being thrust before one’s eyes. It is, admittedly, a story, like Huck Finn or Fitzgerald-pal Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, that requires some sophistication; it can be read and re-read again and again, not because the book changes but because the reader does. Luhrmann’s version is not made for the mutable.
In what must have been a major concession by the director, for whom characters and context seem unnecessary impediments to manufacturing more and more computer-generated images, Luhrmann retains Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), the narrator of the story, and the character through whose eyes we view the not-entirely-knowable Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). In a specious alteration of the original, Nick is recovering from “morbid alcoholism” and—as prescribed therapy—writes the story we’re seeing from the confines of the Perkins Sanitarium (a clever enough insertion: Maxwell Perkins was Fitzgerald’s editor, and editors are often, rightly, considered cogs in a correctional institution). What is being written will ultimately be called “The Great Gatsby by Nick Carraway,” which is inane, but hardly out of character for the film.
From his lonely room, Nick flashes back to 1922, the delirious postwar period of Prohibition booze and Wall Street gone go-go. Even Nick, a writer by avocation, has gotten into the bond business and winds up renting a house in West Egg across the bay from the more fashionable East Egg (think Hamptons). Directly across the water from Nick—and his next-door neighbor, Gatsby—lives Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her unseen 3-year-old daughter and her brutish husband Tom Buchanan, who, as played by Joel Edgerton, seems ready to huff and puff and blow Gatsby’s house down, maybe from across the bay.
Edgerton is Australian, as is Luhrmann, who faithfully casts his films with fellow countrymen—see Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge” or, much worse, Kidman and Hugh Jackman in “Australia.” It hardly matters in “Gatsby,” since actors hardly matter.
What matters is the excess. Luhrmann apparently thought to mirror with it the giddy tenor of the times he was recreating, but it comes off more like World War I—senseless and unending. It is this critic’s contention that the “spectacle” of computerized movies and 3D technology have taken all the awe out of cinema. If those technicians we refer to as studio filmmakers can do anything, then what difference does it make whether Gatsby’s parties are attended by hundreds or thousands? They’re just ones and zeros anyway. (The party scenes and their wretched excess are given a shot of energy by hip-hop maestro Jay-Z, one of the film’s producers, whose music in the film is an anachronism, but far from the only one). In fact, it would be surprising if there were one real-life surface in the entire movie; and unless another “Hobbit” is released this year, Gatsby would seem a shoo-in as a nominee for Best Animated Picture.
But the soullessness of the movie is not a result of those surfaces but of a profound lack of emotional depth, a decision on the part of Luhrmann to stimulate his audience rather than make them feel, based in a lack of faith in their sympathy or understanding.
The casting is certainly questionable: Edgerton, as said, is ridiculous, and it therefore figures that Tom would be given much more prominence than he possesses in the book. Carey Mulligan may not be the type that most romantic obsessions are made of—but then, it’s not our romantic obsession. It belongs to Gatsby, who was made a cipher by Fitzgerald for a reason: If you get to know him too well, his compulsion begins to look pathetic. The reason he made his millions, reinventing his poverty-stricken, North Dakota self, just like any immigrant stumbling onto the American shores, was Daisy, and neither can stand up to much objective scrutiny. The reasons that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby became a bootlegger, allied himself with the likes of Meyer Wolfsheim and bought his castle on the shores of West Egg were all illusions.
No director hires Leonardo DiCaprio to have him occupy the margins of a story, but in subjecting both Gatsby and DiCaprio to the hard focus of conventional Hollywood, he strips both of their dignity. He strips the viewers, too, for that matter, because they are being told throughout how deeply they should be feeling toward the story and its characters, while being provided no emotional basis to feel any such thing.
It has been argued by some scholars that when Fitzgerald talked about second acts, he was not talking about second lives. He was referring to the American experience in terms of dramatic structure—that the first act always led to the third, with no development in between. Or as an “act,” a routine, a well-practiced series of techniques and stunts, maybe even sleight-of-hand, all reflecting the artistic limitations and imagination of the performer in question. In other words, shtick.
As he has already proved in the past, Lurhmann’s shtick is about filling the screen with the kind of vastness and flash that distracts from a lack of heart. If “The Great Gatsby” is any indication, there are no second acts in the life of Baz Luhrmann.