Sportin’ Life, Eh, Old Sport?

I knew a Jay Gatsby.

Click for Rotten Tomatoes website archive of top critics on the 2013 adaptation of The Great GatsbyWe were in grade school in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and stayed close through high school. It prob­a­bly wasn’t until junior high when I saw this trait of his — sim­ply put it’s a per­son sure he can buy friends with money. But that is so sim­ple it sounds socio­pathic, when it’s the most nat­ural impulse, encour­aged by the praise heaped gen­er­ally on the virtue of gen­eros­ity. I’ve spot­ted it in other peo­ple, either full-onset or the tendency.

I don’t recall tying the per­son­al­ity to the clas­sic novel by F. Scott Fitzger­ald any time that I have read it or the sev­eral times I’ve attempted to sit through the earnest Robert Red­ford vehi­cle. But the real­ity of the psy­cho­log­i­cal impulse is obvi­ous in the unusual yet suc­cess­ful approach taken by direc­tor and co-screenwriter Baz Luhrmann.

The Great Gatsby is a great motion pic­ture this spring.

Those who crit­i­cize it, those I’ve read at any rate, have a film shot in their minds from the vivid but reflec­tive lit­tle book, and this isn’t it.

The vol­ume is quiet, a noisy story told in hind­sight by the third wheel, Nick Car­raway — the other wheels being Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin whom Jay loves but whom World War I and ambi­tion separated.

This movie is loud, with decid­edly non-Jazz Age music used. Maybe music writ­ten 80–90 years later would be jar­ring to review­ers with sen­si­bil­i­ties as ten­der is the night.

I’m not sure how rap star Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, who scored the film, suc­ceeds, but he blends the lat­est pop tunes with stan­dards writ­ten by Gersh­win and oth­ers of the 1920s — some “per­formed” by a looka­like of a young Cab Cal­loway, (Gersh­win mod­eled the drug dealer Sportin’ Life in his Porgy and Bess on the band­leader).

The musi­cal smor­gas­bord gives authen­tic­ity, not to the times but to the time­less story of youth and lust and love and greed. This most Amer­i­can novel is taught as hav­ing painted unique Yan­kee char­ac­ters, espe­cially that com­ing out of the 19th cen­tury, but Charles Dick­ens or Vic­tor Hugo would’ve known them.

Mad Men’s Don Draper is very much this century’s Jay Gatsby, set a half-century ago. We may see our­selves most clearly with a lit­tle distance.

If Gatsby the book is a clas­sic it is because of the eter­nal­ness of its story and char­ac­ters. Thus, Hollywood’s choice is to honor the pre-Depression glitz, but as the actors and audi­ence are us, and get today’s soundtrack.

The script acknowl­edges the time gap by hav­ing char­ac­ters see Gatsby’s habit of call­ing any­one “old sport” as being behind the times, theirs or ours.

The look of this motion pic­ture is that of Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, not so much the God­fa­ther movies but The Cot­ton Club and even Apoc­a­lypse Now — the color palette, long and tight shots, and cuts. I saw the 2-D ver­sion because of the day and hour I chose, but I under­stand the inten­tion of why it was shot 3-D. This story com­prises a com­plex fable, which should have that larger-than-life magic that the 3-D look provides.

Luhrmann’s wife, Cather­ine Mar­tin, deserves Oscars for both cos­tumes and pro­duc­tion design. There won’t be better-dressed movie sets or actors this year.

What gives Gatsby real­ism isn’t the lone­li­ness implied in gain­ing friends-at-any-cost, but his shy­ness. Daisy has her lay­ers, too.

Have I known any Daisys? That may be the point of the book and at least this film ver­sion, a proof-text of the care­less­ness of the rich and the dif­fer­ence between rich­ness and wealth. Gatsby is merely wealthy (1st-generation nou­veau riche).

Is Nick an authen­tic stereo­type? Sure. I’m a Nick. Lots of writ­ers are.

Car­raway in the book and cer­tainly this mov­ing pic­ture, and per­haps the pre­vi­ous film attempts, has scant com­plex­ity. He is Fitzgerald’s vehi­cle through which the romance can be told.

Thus I am not both­ered by the biggest change from the book, plac­ing Nick in “Perkins San­i­tar­ium,” for alco­holism treat­ment a few years later, telling his ther­a­pist — Dr. Perkins — the saga first orally then at the doc’s sug­ges­tion in writ­ing — mak­ing the show a series of flashbacks.

A novel’s nar­ra­tion can just hap­pen; in a movie there needs to be a rea­son. Big deal — it gives Luhrmann a way to bring out Fitzgerald’s stately prose out­side of dia­logue. Plus it hon­ors Scott’s famed edi­tor Max Perkins. Heck, this doc­tor in a late scene arranges a sleep­ing Nick’s pages — edit­ing, in other words.

In between is know­ing of the bits of auto­bi­og­ra­phy that Fitzger­ald planted here and in some other sto­ries. Luhrmann shows echoes both of South­ern belle Zelda in Daisy and a whis­per of their daugh­ter Scottie.

The other allu­sion is nearly a dis­trac­tion, the water motif played against the actor who plays Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio. After all, he was the tragic hero of Titanic from 1997. DiCaprio dis­ap­pears in this vul­ner­a­ble performance.

Tobey Maguire is the per­fect Stingo of this story (Peter MacNichol’s nar­ra­tor in the 1982 screen ver­sion of Sophie’s Choice).

Carey Mul­li­gan more than matches the men, so strong as Daisy in that her weak­ness — not obvi­ous for quite a while — also was hid­den to Gatsby. Or is that fault evil?

I don’t often see movies twice, Old Sport, but I’ll spring the extra $3 for those 3-D glasses to see the Luhrmann Gatsby again.

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