The Great Gatsby, that most nuanced and poetic of American novels, has taunted directors for nearly nine decades, defying them to create a satisfying film adaptation. It is impossible to judge the first Gatsby movie, a silent version released only a year after the book's publication. Except for the trailer and a few stills, it has been lost. Elliott Nugent's 1949 version, starring Alan Ladd and playing up the story's gangsterish subtext, has its defenders but is notoriously hard to find. It has never been released on DVD, and although it was available in its entirety on YouTube, all but a two-minute excerpt has been removed, because of copyright violations.
Jack Clayton's 1974 version had exquisite production values and a superb performance by a then-unknown Sam Waterston, playing Nick Carraway. Otherwise, it was an excellent substitute for Ambien. (Useless Trivia Department: the late Howard da Silva was the only actor to appear in two Great Gatsby films, playing George Wilson in Nugent's version and Meyer Wolfsheim in Clayton's.) I could bear to watch only about ten minutes of the 2000 A&E Network miniseries starring Toby Stephens, which was about as long as I could stand to watch Moulin Rouge, the most famous previous movie by the latest director to take on Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann.
I wasn't sanguine about Luhrmann—a director who believes that nothing succeeds like wretched excess—directing a film of The Great Gatsby. I was pleased to find, however, that Luhrmann's film is, in many ways, a remarkably good Gatsby. In one aspect—the leading actor—it's a certifiably great one.
Not everything works in Luhrmann's version. Fitzgerald had Nick tell us straight out that he has been drunk only twice in his life. Therefore, I'm not totally happy with Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce having Nick write The Great Gatsby as therapy during his stay in a sanitarium for severe alcoholics, though the device works on a sheer dramatic level. I really don't like Luhrmann having key phrases in the book crawl across the screen, in calligraphic script, or his repeated use of spinning newspaper headlines. (Spinning headlines were already a musty device in the 1960s, when the old Batman series used them for camp value.)
For the most part, however, Luhrmann's flamboyance pays off. He has a vivid visual imagination and a willingness to take risks, and here he abandons the cartoonishness that marred his earlier films. Luhrmann's approach turns out to be much better in bringing Gatsby to life than the hushed reverence of previous directors. Scenes such as Gatsby throwing his beautiful shirts to Daisy, and images such as the Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, are as thrilling in Luhrmann's movie as they were risible in Clayton's. Similarly, the party scenes are deliriously over the top, but they are defensible as Nick's fever dream of a golden, apocalyptic summer. Luhrmann's much-vaunted use of rap music on the sound track is nowhere near as distracting as I thought it would be, if also not quite as energizing as he hoped.
The quieter scenes work best of all, largely because Luhrmann gets the casting right. Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred years ago in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, captures Fitzgerald's elegant young roughneck magnificently. Throughout his thirties, DiCaprio has projected an unsettling mix of manliness and boyishness, charm and menace. Some critics have complained about his contradictions, but they make him an ideal Gatsby, keeping us slightly on our guard even as our hearts melt for him. Our hearts do melt, especially when Gatsby meets Daisy again, in Nick's house, for the first time in years. And again, when Gatsby speaks the famous line, "Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can!" The way DiCaprio's eyes flicker, blazing with ardor but mixed with just an iota of fear and doubt, is acting on a transcendent scale.
Carey Mulligan, as Daisy, is a worthy match for DiCaprio, exuding just the right mix of charm and unreliability. Unlike previous actresses who played Daisy, Mulligan makes Gatsby's obsession understandable. Joel Edgerton, as Tom, captures both Tom's brutality and arrogant air of command. I had doubts about Tobey Maguire, a famously passive actor, attempting the famously passive role of Nick, but my doubts were misplaced. Maguire has grown strongly as a screen presence, adding to the honesty and purity he has always projected. The other roles in Luhrmann's Gatsby tend to be shortchanged, but with the jarring exception of Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan as Wolfsheim, all the actors seem right.
Graced by the resplendent production and costume designs of Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's Gatsby comes closer to being great than anyone could have expected. At the end, when the view of the Buchanans' East Egg dock becomes obscured in fog, we feel exactly as Fitzgerald would have us feel.
Traveling from ninety years in the past to three hundred years in the future, J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek feature, Star Trek into Darkness, demonstrates once again that the U.S.S. Enterprise is in safe hands. The opening scene, featuring Spock (Zachary Quinto) in mortal danger at the edge of an erupting volcano, is too much as a beginning, though undeniably spectacular. After that, however, Star Trek into Darkness blasts off for a delightfully unsmooth voyage. The heart of the story is the vengeful search by Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) for the murderous fugitive John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). Harrison's true identity will not be a surprise to Trekkers, though I will not reveal it here. Let's just say there are many spectacular battles, many nail-biting cliffhangers, many state-of-the-art special effects, and many expendable extras in Starfleet uniforms.
Some critics, including the late Roger Ebert, complained that Abrams' first Star Trek movie lacked the humanity of Gene Roddenberry's original creations. I found that criticism misplaced: Abrams, who essentially destroyed Roddenberry's universe, had to use the first movie to create his own. The only question was whether you thought Abrams had the right to change the Star Trek mythos so radically. As a casual fan of the franchise, I had no particular objections, and in any case the second film has rendered Ebert's objections moot. Star Trek into Darkness is very much concerned with questions of humanity and morality, particularly in the scenes involving Harrison and an arrogant Starfleet admiral played, with awe-inspiring cussedness, by Peter Weller.
It is wonderful to see how easily these actors slip so easily and comfortably into roles made iconic by earlier actors. (Leonard Nimoy shows up once again as the elderly Spock.) Karl Urban's McCoy, John Cho's Sulu and Anton Yelchin's Chekov don't get much screen time, but all the others register strongly, with Simon Pegg a particular hoot as Scotty. Abrams even introduces a "Why Didn't They Think of This Before?" plot twist—a romance between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana).
The real star of Star Trek into Darkness, however, is its villain. With his slanted dark eyes, Cupid's-bow mouth and sepulchral voice, Benedict Cumberbatch is one of those British actors—in the tradition of James Mason, Alan Rickman, and Ralph Fiennes—who was born to play elegant bad guys. As Harrison, he projects a seething menace which, combined with his impressive physicality, suggests he will have a long, illustrious career terrorizing movie audiences.
Another, more melancholy kind of terror—the fear of lost love—stalks the coast of modern-day Greece in Richard Linklater's latest film, Before Midnight.
Before Midnight is the third film in what Linklater calls "the lowest-grossing trilogy of all time." The trilogy—which was actually very successful from an art-house standpoint—began with 1995's Before Sunrise, in which Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), American and French twentysomethings, meet on a train traveling from Budapest to Vienna. Jesse has twenty-four hours before his plane leaves Vienna for Texas; impulsively, he asks Celine to get off the train in Vienna and spend his last night in Europe with him. She accepts, and they spend the time wandering through the city, talking about every subject under the sun, and falling in love. In the morning, they part, pledging to return to Vienna in six months.
Celine and Jesse's story resumed with 2004's Before Sunset. Jesse, having written a novel about his unforgettable night in Vienna, is in Paris on a book tour. He is just ending his reading at Shakespeare & Co. when Celine walks in. They spend the next two hours rekindling their old conversation, and their old romance.
In Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have been together for nine years. They live in Paris and have adorable twin daughters, Ella and Nina (Jennifer and Charlotte Prior). The film takes place on the Peloponnese, where Celine and Jesse are renting a vacation villa with a group of friends.
At the film's opening, Jesse is saying goodbye at the airport to his son Henry (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), his child with the woman he divorced to be with Celine. Jesse is wracked with sorrow and guilt at living so far away from Henry, who lives with his mother in Chicago. Celine, an environmentalist, has an offer for an important job in Paris that she wants to accept, even though—as Jesse is quick to point out—she would be working for a man she hates. Both Jesse and Celine hate Jesse's ex-wife, though Celine is more inclined to say so, and Celine especially hates any hint from Jesse that the family should move to Chicago, where she would have to restart her career from scratch.
This sets the stage for the third in the series of two-hour conversations that comprise the "Before" trilogy. Before Sunrise portrayed the delirious beginning of a romance; Before Sunset, its improbable and glorious resumption after an interruption of many years. Before Midnight, like the first two films, is a verbal pas de deux between Hawke and Delpy. They have lunch with their friends at the villa, visit a Byzantine church, end up in a hotel suite where they are supposed to spend a romantic night. (One of their friends at the villa is played by Walter Lassally, the legendary cinematographer whose credits include Tom Jones and Zorba the Greek.)
Unfortunately, the night at the hotel turns out to be anything but romantic. This is the first of the "Before" movies to have outside people and events encroach seriously on Celine and Jesse's relationship. Of course, for Celine and Jesse this situation has been developing for years, and some of the patterns are already familiar to them; when Celine storms out of the suite, Jesse knows she'll be back a minute later. But this, apparently, is the first time Celine utters the dreaded phrase: "I don't think I love you anymore!"
In some ways Before Midnight reminds me of Two for the Road, the 1968 film written by Frederic Raphael and directed by Stanley Donen. Two for the Road starred Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as an English couple taking various road trips in France at successive stages of their marriage, the status of their relationship ranging from starry-eyed love to the verge of divorce. Both films have the same ferocious honesty about the wounds couples inflict on each other. But Before Midnight is a much less tricky, more direct film than Two for the Road. And whereas in Two for the Road Finney's character was far and away the more reprehensible, in Before Midnight there is plenty of blame to go around.
From the first, Jesse and Celine were both contentious and a little ornery; that was what made them believable and interesting. It is unutterably sad to see these traits now threaten to drive them apart. They are less attractive now, not only to each other, but to us. He's condescending, she's exacting, and they both have noticeable cruel streaks. There are two scenes before the final fight that particularly make us cringe. Celine has always loved to mock Jesse's masculine vanity in private, but in the first scene she does it, a little too insistently, in front of their friends. In the second scene, a hotel clerk insists that both Jesse and Celine sign her copy of Jesse's novel about their meeting in Vienna. Celine balks; almost from the first scene of Before Sunrise, we knew she doesn't like to be considered the appendage of Jesse or of anyone. There probably was no good way for Jesse to handle the situation, but I think everyone will agree he chooses the worst possible way.
But if Before Midnight is the least charming of the trilogy, it is also probably the best. It is difficult to think of any movie, with the possible exception of Scenes from a Marriage, that is so searingly, nakedly honest about the downside of relationships. Taken together, in fact, the "Before" trilogy may well be the greatest series of films ever made about the relationship of a man and a woman. This is a tribute to Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy equally. Linklater and co-scenarist Kim Krizan always gave Hawke and Delpy a lot of leeway in creating the characters of Jesse and Celine; in the last two films, Hawke and Delpy got screenwriting credits. For both actors to resume these characters at different stages of their lives, making them consistent and real after long interruptions over nearly two decades, is a marvel of thespian intelligence, courage, and insight. The events in Before Midnight may not always be pleasant, but they add depth and weight to the first two films, creating a plausible life history for Jesse and Celine. We may not always like them, but we always root for them, and for their staying together.
Before Midnight ends on the same note of fragile but definite hope the first two films did. Some critics can't wait for 2022 and the next "Before" movie; others think this film is the logical end to the series. I think that is up to Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, and whether they feel they have anything further to tell us about Celine and Jesse. Of course all of us dread that the fourth "Before" movie will show them meeting by chance in an airport, after years of not speaking to each other. Will Jesse and Celine stay together? All I can say is that their luck always held before.
Incidentally, I loved Before Sunrise so much on its first release that I wrote a poem about it. The poem appears in my book Rollercoaster, published by Word Works Capital Collection in 2004:
(reviewing two films)
Calculate the possibilities
of Celine and Jesse, two seraphs in grunge,
keeping their last-second promise to meet
again at a Viennese railway station
on Beethoven's birthday. Remember,
they already vowed not to write each other
or exchange addresses; correspondence,
in their young experience, serves only to speed
love's death. So what might happen?
Neither returns; he comes, she doesn't;
she comes, he doesn't; one is too late
or too early; his plane crashes; her train wrecks;
they reunite, and within minutes
exhaust their previously inexhaustible
conversation, or within hours
open the wounds they failed to inflict
before; or they elope,
find jobs, have kids,
and spend ever after at each other's throats.
This is the point: possibilities
are not to calculate. The chances
of their meeting at all; of their wandering
those streets where rats in Homburgs
exchanged conspiracies with sickly smiles,
drove vans over each other, were run aground
in sewers; of their ascending
that Ferris wheel where Harry Lime
offered Holly Martins a hypothetical
twenty thousand pounds for each crushed rat--
"Tax-free, old boy, absolutely tax-free"--
and redeeming that evil with a simple kiss
were just as infinitesimal
as the black-and-white trees of the Prater
regaining their green, the rubble
being cleared away, the Schonbrunn and Staatsoper
seeing illumination by night again.