American Dreamers: The Great Gatsby, Pain and Gain
The American Dream-success, excess, money, more money—is the subject of two very entertaining films attracting the crowds to your local cinemas. The bigger draw is the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby, brought to the screen with maximum 3-D (or 2-D if that’s your choice) razzle-dazzle–and a surprising degree of sensitivity by Baz Luhrmann.
Gatsby has proven difficult to adapt in the past; previous versions were both opulent and far too stately (1973’s version with Robert Redford) or too streamlined and moralizing (the 1949 version with Alan Ladd doing a pretty fair Gatsby). While these versions succeeded in capturing the sumptuous and stark settings of the book—the heart of the story remained elusive. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby certainly captures both the excessively gaudy parties (can anyone be that wealthy—does Gatsby own the U.S. Mint?) and the unrelenting despair of life in the Valley of Ashes. However this Gatsby has its heart in the right place as Fitzgerald’s haunted characters are vividly enacted by Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio.
DiCaprio’s Gatsby captures all the contradictory facets of one of literature’s most discussed characters: Gatsby’s brashness, idealism, disillusionment, impatience, intelligence, foolishness, and romanticism. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby spends most of his life in pursuit of the American Dream, transforming himself from humble James Gatz to gloriously wealthy, enigmatic, affected (hello, Old Sport!) Jay Gatsby. That he does much of this- ultimately- to win back the very wealthy, very married Daisy (Carey Mulligan) either makes Gatsby the most romantic–or the most deluded of dreamers. DiCaprio’s Gatsby makes you feel the intensity of his dream—he, more than any previous Gatsby, makes you believe him when he says he can repeat the past—even though we know that he can’t. Tobey Maguire overcomes an awkward framing device (not in the book) and matches Dicaprio with a nuanced portrayal of Gatsby’ neighbor and eventual best friend. Fitzgerald’s Caraway is also a man of contradictions: worldly but naïve, the self-proclaimed nonjudgmental narrator whose immersion into the lifestyles of the rich and famous leads him to ultimately condemn their wasteful lives. We see Gatsby through Nick’s critical…and ultimately admiring lens…and Maguire, with his looks of wonder and glimmers of realization, creates a compelling character out of what could have been the “straight man” of the piece.
Carey Miulligan also does quite nicely as Daisy Buchanan. Daisy’s a difficult character to play; Mulligan has to project both what Gatsby sees in her—and why she is eventually an unworthy object of desire. To Miss Mulligan’s credit, she does convey Daisy’s cynicism, dissatisfaction, and shallowness– as well as the glimmers of innocence and vulnerability (as well as the unmistakable beauty) that captivated Gatsby in the first place.
If you’re looking for Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby to be strictly “by the book,” you may be a little disappointed; there are some glaring omissions for those familiar with Fitzgerald’s prose, and some points are needlessly underlined. But one shouldn’t expect any movie to be the book; they are two different art forms, and while some books have been damaged in the transition, others have been immeasurably enhanced when adapted for the screen. Luhrmann’s Gatsby, aided by a gallery of fine performers, is a dazzlingly beautiful film to look at, and one that captures much of the spirit of the original work. It’s a worthy achievement.
Pain and Gain succeeds in being quite funny as well as being pretty darned dark, based as it is on a real-life case involving some real-life low-life Florida bodybuilders who kidnapped a wealthy, vulgar entrepreneur, tortured him, made him sign over their wealth, decided to kill him, and then…why spoil the surprises. This is not a film for all tastes…and if you’re acquainted with some of the participants/victims you may not like it all. But for the impartial observer, Michael Bay’s look at some warped pursuers of the American Dream is bold, vibrant, crass, and frequently hilarious—until it takes a harrowing turn toward the end.
Mark Wahlberg’s exuberant turn as the deluded, determined and clueless ringleader helps make a pretty unsympathetic character understandable and partly likable, while Dwayne Johnson surprises (who knew he could be funny!) as a religious ex-convict and co-conspirator whose initial reluctance gives way to some very primal urges. Stealing the film, however, is a very sharp and funny turn from Tony Shalhoub as the crass millionaire/victim who becomes more sympathetic and enterprising as the story evolves.