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New 'Gatsby' movie fails to convey what Fitzgerald was saying

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2013 - The new movie of "The Great Gatsby" is not the worst version you'll see and it's not likely to be the last. But "The Great Gatsby" was not an instant classic.

The story did not take America by storm in 1925 when published. The book had some brief success but then languished for several decades. After the brutal combination of the Great Depression first and then World War II besides, people began to look back and wonder, “What were we thinking?”  — and that's when the story really began to take root.

Oddly, Fitzgerald himself had been whining about the Roaring Twenties right in the middle of them, way ahead of schedule, and his untypically American message was: Don't just do it! Don't live the dream!

The message may be odd, but the story-line was Hollywood catnip and movie-makers have been playing with the story ever since. This new version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan makes the fifth adaptation — too many repeats, even by Hollywood standards, but that's probably a key point. How can the dream factories resist a tale of the ruthless and the gorgeous burning up money in the name of love, real or imagined?

But that story is already in so many other movies. Why keep re-making this one?

For starters, never underestimate the appeal of dressing up for parties. Amazing costumes for public extravaganzas will not soon go away as vehicles for big movies. Just consider what recent movie-makers did with "The Hunger Games" and "Anna Karenina."

This particular Great Gatsby is from the same team that made "Moulin Rouge!" and "Strictly Ballroom" — director Baz Luhrmann, Costume Designer Catherine Martin (Luhrmann's wife), and writer Craig Pearce — and we get a similar, pretty result. A visual-musical blowout. In this movie, Gatsby's parties look a little too much like 21st century raves and even come with a Jay-Z soundtrack.

That's one part of the problem of the movie — it doesn't quite look like the Twenties. Brooks Brothers and Miuccia Prada consulted on the look of the costumes and you can see fashion tie-ins oozing from this movie, even if you haven't seen the new window displays at Brooks Brothers stores or current magazine ads for The Great Gatsby Collection at Tiffany's.

Supposedly the story sets up a competition between the sophisticated old-moneyed class (in East Egg) and the vulgar nouveau riche (in West Egg) on Long Island, but in this movie everybody is vulgar.

Tom Buchanan, Yale man and polo player, almost rides his polo pony right into the house at the beginning of the movie and the place is so gaudy I thought it must be Gatsby's. Could Gatsby's mansion possibly be worse? Ha.

Remember that insanely magical castle at the start of all the Walt Disney movies? The one with the river winding right through it and sailboats and trains and fireworks and a shimmering landscape with a huge shooting star to top everything? Gatsby's place is like that, only with, count them, three shooting stars.

The movie actually looks photoshopped. Check out the cars when they're in the Valley of Ashes and see if you don't agree.

If you want to see a Twenties-looking version, watch the 1974 movie with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The look was perfect, but beware, that movie was oh so endlessly slow and boring.

This new version starts out jumpy and wild. For the first half, it looks drugged-out on speed. If all you want is a story about the antics of people with too much money and not enough to worry about, this movie will work. It even has a few sweet quiet moments later on. You could be forgiven for thinking that Gatsby directed the beginning, and Nick wormed his way in to direct the ending.

What's partly missing is us, real people, at our dreamiest. We stupidly fall in love with the idea of how happy we'd be if we were in love with, you know, somebody totally lovable.

We fall in love with the notion that if only we were rich, then we'd be happy. We dream about how we can definitely go back for do-overs, because now we're older and wiser and way cooler. Yeah, right. All that's in the story, but the movie is mostly content with showing eye-popping images.

And images are fine, movies are visual art and built on images. If you saw Tom Ford's 2010 movie, "A Single Man," you know that surface imagery really can go in deep and be quite powerful. Not this time. Having taught the book for years, I inevitably watched to see how deep the movie would try to go with Fitzgerald's story. Not far.

What is largely missing is that Fitzgerald was telling an American Parable, especially about lying to ourselves about what we (Americans) love and who we are; and he did a good job, maybe better than he knew.

Just before the book was published, he tried to change the title to "Under the Red, White, and Blue." That's lost in the movie. If you try, you can probably find some evidence of a polluted American Dream, but I don't think the movie-makers were worried about it.

They seemed mostly interested in bringing the Twenties up-to-date. According to Production Designer Catherine Martin, they were fascinated with "finding modern ways of releasing classic and historical references from the shackles of the past."

Sounds good. That line even sounds a bit like what Nick Carraway says several times in the book, notably in the now-famous ending: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." But, honestly, I think she missed the point and got the concept backward.

Nick Otten is a freelance writer who has covered movies, books and other topics for the Beacon. His academic work has included being associate director in the Theater Program at Clayton High School and adjunct professor in the graduate Communications MAT Program at Webster University.

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