Casablanca is a second-rate film. It’s a strange mash-up, riddled with clichés, character inconsistencies and continuity errors. But, as philosopher Umberto Eco argues, all those elements – the muddle of eternal archetypes we use to tell ourselves stories – that almost made it awful, somehow elevated it to a higher plane: “there is a sense of dizziness, a stroke of brilliance.” Ladies and gentlemen, The Great Gatsby is our Casablanca.
‘Dizziness’ may actually be the operative word here: at the end of the picture, the normally rowdy NPH was silent, and for some reason my hands were shaking. The film is an orgy of parties, car chases, flamboyance and jazz-age remixes: a digitally enhanced 3D extravaganza of ‘restlessness approaching hysteria’ that has long been Luhrmann’s speciality. Indeed, the director’s gaudy style and the feel of the period often meshed well in surprising ways – the frenzied dialogue as our narrator and observer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is first ushered into his cousin Daisy’s (Carey Mulligan) glamorous world resembles the sped-up, jittery quality of 1920s film.
It’s fair to say that probably no film will ever capture the true essence of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t even try to, and this is why so many of the criticisms of Gatsby (and they are numerous) seem to miss the point somewhat. Yes, it’s brash, tacky, even. What else did you expect? Luhrmann’s subtlety is cinematic in a way that echoes the love stories of Hollywood’s golden age. He does a marvellous job with the breathtaking imagery of the book: the looming eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg; the billowing white curtains of Daisy’s conservatory; the green light at the end of the dock.
The narrative framing device of Carraway’s alcoholic rehabilitation and remembrance didn’t quite work for me, in part because it felt a little self-referential to be watching another nostalgic guy at a typewriter (no one can ever replace you, Ewan). And, yes, the dialogue is sometimes painfully heavy-handed. Yet even that contributed to the feeling of being swept along by a fairy tale, at times coming close to the fable-like simplicity of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another F. Scott Fitzgerald story. As DiCaprio and Mulligan kissed on the screen in dewy, soft focus close-up, for a brief moment the picture house seemed transported back to the twenties.
But not for long. The movie starts in flickering, grainy monochrome, before giving way to the perfect, shining gold and black title. We are not drawn back into another age, but bombarded with a parallel of our own. The baselines of Jay-Z’s soundtrack pounded and truly gave a sense of how new and dangerous the Charleston would have seemed back then. Critics of the book in the twenties asked why Fitzgerald had dained to include the ‘passing fad’ of jazz in his story (will future generations look back on the current naysayers with such scorn as we do those old ones? Maybe). The impressionistic snatches of dialogue; flashes of archival footage of glittering New York and of trench warfare; even the slightly misjudged typed lines appearing on screen as Maguire narrates (although I can count this as a guiltily pleasurable tribute to the best last line of all time) made parts of the picture the movie feel like an music video. And not in a bad way. As one reviewer has observed, it’s the Gatsby that Gatsby himself would have made: shallowly, unapologetically spectacular.
The circus was anchored by near-perfect casting. Mulligan as the idealised lost love was the perfect embodiment of delicate glamour, and her Daisy was perhaps the first to make us realise just how Gatsby could go to such lengths to win – and ultimately lose – her. Her performance was key in revealing Gatsby’s heart-breaking purity and hopefulness. Nevertheless, Leo (fantasy of my pre-teen years! Light of my life, fire of my loins, etc.) brought a naivety and humour to Gatsby that Robert Redford’s 1974 portrayal didn’t come close to. While we occasionally saw echoes of The Aviator as DiCaprio strode anxiously about his empty mansion, he has never lost the childish vulnerability of his very first roles, and it was crucial to this one. Indeed, he and Maguire’s bromance has its roots in their years as rising child stars together, and Tobey conveys Carraway’s admiration and awe for Gatsby (another crucial element if the story is to work) very well. That said, I never have been able to particularly enjoy his sleepily foolish mug.
When The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, it received mixed critical reviews. The New York Herald Tribune noted it as “a purely ephemeral phenomenon, but it contains some of the nicest little touches of contemporary observation you could imagine.” We could dismissively say the same about this 2013 offering. Instead, abandon all prior assumption and expectation. This Gatsby should be understood and judged entirely on its own terms.