The Great Gatsby. The title raises two immediate questions, one of which is easily answered. Why is Gatsby great? Because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel embraces all the urgencies of the decade he dubbed “the Jazz Age”: the fast cars and easy money, the plentiful cheap booze and available sex, the nexus of big businesses on Wall Street and in the underworld, all appraised in luscious prose.
A second, thornier question: Why is Gatsby great? Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious figure in Manhattan and Long Island lore, attracts thousands of revelers to his sensational parties either because the guests don’t know the source of his wealth or because they do, and that knowledge gives them the thrill of vicarious outlawry. Born as James Gatz (“gat” was ’20s slang for a gangster’s pistol) to a Midwestern family of no particular means, he reinvents himself as a successful bootlegger with a dandy’s suave manners. He accumulated all this class and notoriety in hopes of winning back Daisy Fay (Carey Mulligan), the girl he left behind in Louisville, and who is now married to the aristocratic “polo player” Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), Daisy’s second cousin and the book’s narrator, sees greatness in Gatsby’s abounding “hope”. But to Tom, and perhaps to even Daisy, Gatsby’s new money is just tainted, and so is he.
Any movie of Fitzgerald’s novel has to take Nick’s view: that Gatsby is the noble man and Tom the thug; that Gatsby’s ambition to reclaim Daisy is not new money chasing old but rather a romantic, chivalric quest; and that the prize may not be worth the effort. Hollywood is well suited to dramatize these issues. It spends vast sums on the veneer of class, swank, luxe. It loves love. It is Gatsby.
The novel’s Nick has retreated to his own Midwestern home after his New York interlude to consider what made Gatsby great. In the movie, Nick has taken residence in a sanitarium, where he spills out the tipsy story of what happened during the summer of 1922 to Dr. Perkins (Jack Thompson) and begins putting his thoughts on paper — a memoir that will become The Great Gatsby.
For the film’s first half-hour, Gatsby is known only through his ravishing parties and the outlandish stories that have turned his biography into instant urban legend. This early section of the movie shows Baz Luhrmann rampant. Phones literally jiggle when they ring; passages from the novel are scrawled across the 3-D screen, like fevered entries in a schoolgirl’s diary. The proletarian night town where Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Isla Fisher) lives with her mechanic husband George (Jason Clarke) is spiffed up with a black gentleman blowing sax on a fire escape across from the garage. The camera of cinematographer Simon Duggan seems to think it can’t simply capture an image; only rarely do you notice it in a pronounced way and yet it really does add something to the experience, drawing you in as if escorting you through a series of opening gates, doors and emotional states.
Gatsby’s parties are Ziegfeld Follies raised to orgasmic pitch. The Cirque du Soleil-style party scenes with hundreds of swells, flappers and ’20s celebrities dance madly to purposefully anachronistic songs by Jay Z and Beyoncé, as the night sky erupts into fireworks and a blizzard of confetti. The precision and economy of Fitzgerald’s style gets coverted into the famous Luhrmann flair, expressed in art-direction adjectives and visual exclamation points.
In a way, this excess of opulence suits the setting. From Wall Street to the Long Island suburb of West Egg, where the ostentatious mansion Gatsby owns abuts Nick’s more modest rental, to the old-money East Egg across the bay, Fitzgerald’s New Yorkers think too much is never enough. So more drinks, gamier sex, and posher clothes. The Great Gatsby, in novel or film form, shows a young man’s instant attraction to a town radiant with promise and threat. That’s one thing the movies have always been able to do: put the money on the screen.
Gatsby, when he finally materializes, is money incarnate: a true golden boy if you will. His character does something that such a serious actor like Leonardo DiCaprio, who often seems to flee from his charm, hasn’t tried in ages: smile. Gatsby claims to be from old money, to have studied at Oxford and dabbled in painting, like the best class of America’s postwar emigres in Europe. He calls Nick “Old Sport,” in a clubby drawl, no doubt carefully cultivated to disguise his origins. Nick can see through Gatsby’s pretense, but he warms to the native gentility, the dogged hopefulness behind the affected airs and dirty business deals. If the story is about Gatsby’s love for Daisy, it is even more vital and convincing about Nick’s love for Gatsby. The narrator has fallen for his new friend’s star quality.
When Gatsby the man seizes control from Gatsby the rumor, Luhrmann slows down, content to play out the rest of the story. It’s people talking in rooms — gorgeously appointed rooms, filled with smartly dressed folks. Hearts and flowers, mountains of flowers, eventually cede to heartbreak, in the grand Luhrmann tradition, and the actors emote up a summer storm. Maguire’s otherworldly coolness suits the observer drawn into a story he might prefer only to watch. DiCaprio is persuasive as the little boy amongst the grown-ups lost impersonating a tough guy, and Mulligan finds ways to express Daisy’s magnetism and weakness.
Yet the emotions stirred here are not nearly so volcanic and the reason might be that, this time, only one of the parties can imagine dying for love. But it’s also because Daisy understands that her feeling for Gatsby could be as fictional as the imaginary ideal he has tried to embody.
I suspect that it’s been a while since most folks have reread a copy of Fitzgerald’s novel, so I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that like the giddy period it chronicles, the fizzy high comes with an inevitable crash. There’s a reason The Great Gatsby continues to be taught in classrooms nearly 90 years after it was written. It’s a dazzling time capsule of a shimmering era and a devastating look into the dark side of the American dream.