MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Romantic Drama/ Stars: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Sam Waterston, Karen Black, Scott Wilson, Lois Chiles, Edward Herrmann, Howard Da Silva, Regina Baff, Vincent Schiavelli, Roberts Blossom, Beth Porter, Patsy Kensit/ Runtime: 146 minutes
I feel it should be said that it is quite a shame when one sees how slammed the luxurious 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby was when it was first brought to theaters. Indeed there was such a vast amount of buzz from the media surrounding the filming right down to a Scarlett O’Hara-size casting call to find just the right actress to portray the iconic character of Daisy Buchanan, that tragically it was almost destined to not live up to the hype and in that regard it did just that both from a critical and financial standpoint. A tragedy really because when you stop and give it a chance it really is not that bad. In fact, looking at this movie three decades after it’s quite extraordinary how faithful the film is to the source material both in text as well as in recreating the time period in which the story takes place. The main issue that this film seems to run into however, is that the quite calculated directing style done by Jack Clayton as well as the very to the letter screenplay contributed by film legend Francis Ford Coppola is simply much too faithful to the source material. As a result the heart and soul of Fitzgerald’s iconic story becomes severely dented and several key plot points are drawn out at the pace of a snail. As such this adaptation is a truly vivid and surprisingly well-cast yet also quite overlong 144-minute epic of a film that is an adaptation of a timeless story that was really intimate and narrow in its scope.
The main focus of this film’s narrative, as we see with its literary source material, is still the tragically put on pause romance between a mystery man of some wealth and privilege by the name of Jay Gatsby and the woman of his dreams Daisy Buchanan. Their story and the events of an eventful summer in their lives is Daisy’s cousin and Gatsby’s neighbor Nick Carraway, a man who quickly finds himself becoming Gatsby’s most trusted friend. Indeed it is Nick who is the crucial figure for bringing this couple back together 5 years after their romance came to a screeching halt as if it was a car with no brakes colliding violently with a tree. Indeed in the time since they last saw each other, Gatsby is a newly rich young man who has gathered a fairly significant amount of money through mysterious measures. Daisy, on the other hand, has always known wealth and privilege and, as such, simply could not let the possibility of true love interfere with her continued comfort and life of luxury to the point that she married a man by the name of Tom Buchanan for that very reason. Thus with Gatsby’s sense of ambition being egged on solely by his desire to be with Daisy, we see him attempt to get her to leave Tom and finally be with him. Meanwhile we also see Tom is having an affair of his own with an auto mechanic’s bored and desperate wife by the name of Myrtle while Nick himself gets caught up in a romance of his own with a rising golf pro by the name of Jordan Baker. So it is with all of these various entanglements in play, that we see these characters are all on course for a horrific collision. One that, by the time it is done, will expose just how hypocritical the wealthy can be, how false love is when it is not deserved, and the undying power that hope and a dream can truly have on a man….
Now one of the numerous distinctions that makes this timeless tale so unique is the point of view narration and observations of its main protagonist, Nick Caraway. Indeed Nick’s sardonic and oftentimes droll tone manages to match up quite nicely with the one that Fitzgerald undoubtedly was writing with when he put pen to paper; a tone that could only come from a outsider brought into a world they could never have imagined. Not only that, but writing in a character that is a bystander who also doesn’t have as much involvement in how the narrative progresses is also a unique yet lovely writing technique to utilize because it inserts Nick in the mindset and perspective of the reader of the novel. Indeed this is because whereas both Nick and the reader are able to look in on what goes on in the story, but they still manage to restrain from getting involved on a personal level. Yet even though the film is not able to do that, I honestly cannot put the blame on the movie, but rather on the medium of film itself. Indeed there really is not a whole lot that can be done to try and make this magic trick from the book be brought to life on the big screen. Indeed the closest if not only option would have been to have every shot have Nick either partially in frame or not at all. A method that most assuredly would have made this movie a lot worse.
Yet when it comes to sticking to the iconic source material, this film does well and in a way that is not as great as it should be. Indeed it really does feel like significant amounts of this film are simply Sam Waterston (Nick) reading a copy of the novel with a moving background to aid him. Indeed any passerby with even a modicum of film knowledge will tell you that this is an issue because it is in violation of one of the golden rules of moviemaking especially when it comes to films like this: “showing is always better than telling”. Indeed by failing to do so, this signifies that either the director was confused at how best to bring it to life from the source material or they were rushed in their attempts to do so. Indeed it’s not very artistic and it really disrupts the rhythm of the film. In addition, the director seems to have quite the unique bond with the idea of symbolism. I say that because there are instances where we see symbolism done with grace and skill, there are also moments where we see what the movie is trying to take us steamrolled into us with the subtlety of a train wreck on a boat. Perhaps the worst instance of the latter occurs in the immediate aftermath of the demise of an important character and has a character looking out a window and making the remark that “God sees everything” while we also get the camera cutting between them and a billboard with 2 big eyes on it. Indeed the only way it could have been any less subtle was if the director inserted himself in the scene right in front of the billboard waving his hands and screaming as us “Do You Get It?!! These are supposed to be like the eyes of God!!” However, when looking at things from a positive bent, there are a duo of decisions from a directing angle that are actually not that bad. The first has a lot to do with the symbolism behind the hats Daisy is almost always seeing wearing. Indeed in the shots where she is wearing a hat, there is also a light that is placed in such a way that it makes the brim of the hat glow and appear like the halo of an angel. An aspect that does terrific at subtly making the audience aware of Daisy’s seeming innocence and purity without having to hear any dialogue from her to confirm as much. The other action is the choice on the part of the filmmakers to transition a chunk of integral character Meyer Wolfsheim’s dialogue from near the conclusion of the narrative to the middle instead thus allowing it to be cleverly utilized as foreshadowing instead.
Now the casting of an adaptation like this is perhaps the 2nd most crucial aspect to ensuring that you get both fans of the book and movie lovers on board with your adaptation. It is surprising to note therefore that the majority of the cast actually portray their characters remarkably well. This starts with screen legend Robert Redford as the titular Gatsby and who manages to do a wonderful job of giving Gatsby just the right amounts of enigma and charm in equal measure plus it doesn’t hurt that when I read the story, Redford was who I saw Gatsby as. We also get Mia Farrow as the object of Gatsby’s desire Daisy and Farrow does lovely at showcasing both just how romantic, and shallow, this woman is and why perhaps she might not truly deserve Gatsby’s love as much as he may think to the contrary. Indeed she may give off an air of pretentiousness, but she still manages to really feel like the character come to life. We also get wonderfully despicable work from perennial screen icon Bruce Dern as Daisy’s husband Tom and Sam Waterston also manages to give us a wonderful Nick that is equal parts genuine and naive. Indeed when it comes to this cast, it really does seem like the casting department set out to find the best actors for the job and I think it is safe to say that for this version they managed to succeed admirably.
All in all with the help of a terrific cast, and decent enough directorial work, I think it is safe to say that this viewing experience is truly one of the finer takes of this classic novel that has been brought to life. Not only that, but I also think that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have really cherished this adaptation since it manages to keep the majority of the heart and soul of his distinct vision perfectly intact. Indeed it may not be the easiest film in the world to make since the novel is regarded as THE American novel of the 20th century much in the same vein as the timeless tale of Huckleberry Finn was to the 19th century, but this is still a pretty darn good try all things considered. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Great Gatsby “74” a solid 3 out of 5.