What it should be is a two-and-a-half hour exploration of Nicole (Jennifer Jones) and Dick Diver (Jason Robards)'s respective breakdowns, with a backdrop of the French Riviera (to be fair to the film, we do get plenty of Riviera shots). Nicole is Dick's wife and former patient, who hasn't quite got over her condition, and it's driving Dick to a breakdown. Who, if either, will be able to get their life back together?
It's not really the fault of the actors. Jason Robards does what he can with a generic Hollywood script, which portrays Dick as just a drunk and glosses over his adultery. Jennifer Jones, a poor man's Elizabeth Taylor, was forty when she did the film, so it was a struggle to buy the flashback scenes when Nicole is meant to be eighteen. She nails the neuroticism but there's no horror in it. Her performance is watchable but more suited to Tennessee Williams than Fitzgerald.
The film's problem is that it takes the novel and sucks everything out of it. This was the days of the Code, so there is a large degree of bowdlerisation here. The bowdlerisation either comes from omitting things or by making such oblique references that they might as well ask the audience to bring in a copy of the novel with them. For example, Nicole was sexually abused as a teenager but instead of including the scene where the father admits it, they try to drop it into a scene where Nicole's sister Baby (Joan Fontaine) comes to visit. It's as if the filmmakers know that we want an explanation but mumble it in the hope that we won't actually hear. There's no murder scandal either.
Poor Jill St. John playing Rosemary Hoyt, the Hollywood starlet who has her eye on Dick, has nothing to do except be consistently rejected by Dick and smile a lot, seeing as in this film he's the perfect gentleman to her. Joan Fontaine gets a little fun as Baby but they robbed a lot from the script. Screenwriter Ivan Moffat wrongly thought he could do a better job than Fitzgerald. Very wrongly.
The film was nominated for an Oscar but tellingly only for Best Original Song. One of the Divers' friends Abe (Tom Ewell) is a failing concert pianist, which is a perfect chance to play the title tune ad nauseum. Nice as the song is, it's not exactly the theme to Laurence of Arabia. When you're not listening to the song, you're listening to the score, which is basically a rehash of the song and comes knocking on the door at all the right moments to add some weepiness- in case you weren't depressed enough already.
I'd love a faithful adaptation of this novel. Sure, it's very hard to film- even harder than Gatsby- but if they could even capture half of what Fitzgerald does, it would be worth it. This film captures nothing and no one.