Making the Redford Version Look Like Citizen Kane

At the start of 2009, I warned "Uh Oh — I Smell Yet Another Pathetic Gatsby Remake." Sadly, I may have been all too prescient:

As Tom Shillue wrote at the time at Big Hollywood:

According to this story in the Guardian, Hollywood is geared up and ready for the recession, and it seems they are eager to entertain us with a series of big-budget “I told you so’s”.

Baz Luhrmann is all set to mount a re-make of The Great Gatsby because, according to him, "People will need an explanation of where we are and where we've been, and The Great Gatsby can provide that explanation."

Oh, boy. Here we go again. Do I really need another lesson in why the American dream is a charade, and our materialism leads to emptiness and despair? I've heard this all before.

The time it takes to complete a film can do strange things to its message. What might have seemed like a warning about economic excess at the start of the Obama administration can now be viewed by many as a cautionary tale about the identikit persona of Mr. Obama himself, and a reminder of the blindness of those who eagerly followed him. Regarding the former, Mark Steyn wrote in his latest column:

“I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then,” says Nick Carraway in “The Great Gatsby.” “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people – his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself… . So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”

In a post-modern America, the things that Gatsby attempted to fake – an elite schooling – Obama actually had; the things that Gatsby attempted to obscure – the impoverished roots – merely add to Obama’s luster. Gatsby claimed to have gone to Oxford, but nobody knew him there because he never went; Obama had a million bucks’ worth of elite education at Occidental, Columbia and Harvard Law, and still nobody knew him (“Fox News contacted some 400 of his classmates and found no one who remembered him”). In that sense, Obama out-Gatsbys Gatsby: His “shiftless and unsuccessful” relatives – the deportation-dodging aunt on public housing in Boston, the DWI undocumented uncle, the $12-a-year brother back in Nairobi – are useful props in his story, the ever more vivid bit-players as the central character swims ever more out of focus, but they don’t seem to know him either. The more autobiographies he writes, the less anybody knows.

Like Gatsby presiding over his wild, lavish parties, Obama is aloof and remote: let everyone else rave deliriously; he just has to be. He is, in his way, the apotheosis of the Age of American Incredibility. When just being who you are anyway is an incredible accomplishment, Obama managed to run and win on biography almost entirely unmoored from life. But then, like Gatsby, he knew a thing or two about “the unreality of reality.”

To borrow from one of Gatsby's most famous scenes, the shirts have no emperor. Though one huge difference: attendance at Gatsby's wild parties was entirely voluntary. We're all trapped in Obama's cocktail party until at least November. And whatever happens then, we'll be working off the hangover for quite some time to come.

But back to the film itself. My first thought while watching the above trailer was, to paraphrase the perceptive veteran film critics Beavis and Butt-head, this really sucks -- but it sucks in unique ways we've never seen before. Or actually, we have; the same problems that plague Martin Scorsese's The Aviator -- killer production design, great wardrobe, phony looking CGI, and the same unbelievable lead are at work here as well. Here's what I wrote in 2005:

Over the summer, I finally caught The Aviator. Wonderful 1930s and ’40s production design, but its casting reminded me why I skipped it on the big screen in the first place. There was simply no way I could buy the babyfaced perpetual child-man Leonardo DiCaprio as business tycoon Howard Hughes. He simply lacked the gravitas to play the character, despite the fact that at 30, DiCaprio is only a few years younger than Hughes himself was at the start of the era depicted in Scorsese’s picture.

(Incidentally, could you imagine DiCaprio as the title character in Citizen Kane? And yet Orson Welles was actually four years younger than DiCaprio when he played Charles Foster Kane.)

It isn't entirely DiCaprio's fault; just about every Hollywood period movie made post-Brat Pack suffers from the same problem. (For example, the Dorthy Parker film from 1994 with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title role, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, comes immediately to mind. At least in Titanic, DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were supposed to be callow youths, and were surrounded by an army of veteran character actors.)