There exists in the canon of American literature no greater example of a great novel that makes a lousy film than “The Great Gatsby.” With a contained, character-driven plot mixing romance and tragedy, plenty of pre-written dialogue, and the marking of that very marketable tag of “classic,” the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel exudes a most seductive appeal as cinematic source material. Yet, in at least the fourth effort at adapting the book, this A&E version demonstrates once again how this breezily told tale can be transformed into a languorous affair, replete with visual attractiveness and yet somehow dull to its core.
Paul Rudd plays narrator Nick Carraway, a young bond salesman who finds himself entangled in the affair between Gatsby (Toby Stephens) and Daisy Buchanan (Mira Sorvino). The two had been in love before the un-monied Gatsby went off to WWI, and after returning, he has devoted his life to creating an identity that will satisfy the aristocratic sensibility of his beloved, but now married, Daisy. The story follows their reunion and the flare-up of their passions, ultimately leading to a tragic encounter spurred on by Daisy’s grossly elitist husband Tom (Martin Donovan).
In terms of its storytelling structure, Fitzgerald’s book is deceptively complex, revealing information about the characters’ past in carefully selected, non-linear bits, allowing the mystery surrounding the title figure to peel away in compelling fashion.
Screenwriter John McLaughlin shuffles the exposition drastically, going so far as to begin, in cliche telepic fashion, with the image of Gatsby being shot by an unseen gunman, as if this were essentially a whodunit. It’s a bizarre, and clearly poor, choice which robs the story of a truly dramatic twist.
Under Robert Markowitz’s plodding direction, every exchange is ripe with subtextual significance, giving scenes an exceedingly heavy feel, at odds with the Jazz Age setting.
And all the characters are defined with barely a touch of nuance. Toby Stephens speaks out of one side of his mouth, emphasizing the put-on quality of Gatsby’s demeanor, but not for a second capturing his charm. Sorvino has her moments as Daisy, but she ultimately never moves beyond the superficial. Donovan makes for an effective villain, which just isn’t really the right idea — it’s too blatant, too easy.
Rudd’s well cast as Nick, and the actor makes an unconventional choice with this character, portraying contempt for Gatsby early on and leaving the grudging respect for later. It doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do — give the film a narrative flow — but it’s an interesting effort.
Filmed in Montreal, the film does a decent job of depicting 1920s Long Island, and has visuals that are certainly pleasant to look at, thanks especially to Nicoletta Massone’s costumes.
But Markowitz and d.p. Guy Dufaux rely way too much on standard tracking shots and some schmaltzy double-exposure images for the already ill-advised flashbacks.
While the tech credits are decent by cable standards, they certainly pale compared to the lavishness of the 1974 Paramount version starring Robert Redford, an adaptation that also failed to grasp the essence of this elusive, thoroughly American story.