F. Scott Fitzgerald’s now classic novel, The Great Gatsby, has once again been brought to the screen. This time, director Baz Luhrman has given contemporary movie hunks Leonardo diCaprio and Tobey Maguire the opportunity to give life to Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age tragedy. The story is simple enough. Yale graduate Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) gives up his dream of becoming a writer to join the frenzied bond business thriving on Wall Street during the Roaring Twenties. Maintaining a low profile at the firm of one Walter Chase, Nick moves into a modest cottage in the town of West Egg, Long Island, where he can enjoy his off hours without the distractions of the city. Ironically, his humble home sits in the shadow of the “colossal castle” owned by Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio), a mysterious millionaire of whom he knows nothing, other than the fact that he hosts impossibly lavish parties each and every weekend of the summer that serves as the story’s timeframe. Across the bay, Nick can see the massive waterfront mansion where his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her philandering husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), live with their toddler daughter—of whom we see nothing until the closing act. From Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a ladies’ tennis pro who keeps Daisy company (which Jordan seems to prefer over the company of men), Nick learns that Gatsby’s bought his property and throws his wild parties with the sole intention of attracting Daisy, whose loving attentions he first sampled five years earlier, before her marriage to Tom. Asked to stage a reunion, Nick complies, and a passionate affair ensues between the long lost lovers. Prior to this introduction, Tom drags Nick along to The Valley of the Ashes, an industrial wasteland between Long Island and the city where Tom woos the wife of his auto mechanic, Wilson. Under the guise of buying Mrs. Myrtle Wilson (Ila Fisher) a puppy, Tom takes her and Nick to a garish, red wallpapered tenement flat. As Nick sits alone in the sitting room, Tom and Myrtle go at it like the beast with two backs. A few other guests arrive, including Myrtle’s sister, Katherine, who immediately cozies up to Nick. Our erudite narrator refuses her affections, a behavior he repeats without comment for the entire film. As the carousing escalates, Tom and Myrtle emerge from their bedroom romp and get wasted to the extent that Myrtle brings up Daisy. His dander instantly raised, Tom orders her not to mention Daisy’s name. When she responds, chanting “Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” Tom clocks Myrtle in the kisser. Apologizing, Tom picks her up and holds her, and the festivities continue full tilt.
The rest of the story is built around the gradual unveiling of the mysterious source of Gatsby’s fortune. Everyone, including Gatsby himself, regales Nick with myths and speculations about the millionaire’s past: at various times, he’s called a thief, an assassin for the Kaiser, a German spy, a murderer, the heir to a vast Midwestern fortune, and even, according to one old guest at one of his parties, a fabrication. In the end, it turns out that he’s profited—along with a Jewish gangster named Meyer Wolfsheim—from the sale of alcohol through drugstores in one of Prohibition’s bizarre loopholes. Tom exposes this fact during the film’s climax, discrediting Gatsby as a common gangster and ruthless bootlegger once finally certain that “Mr. Nobody from nowhere” is making love to Daisy, his wife. Taunted to the breaking point, Gatsby nearly clobbers Tom, but restrains himself. Rattled, Gatsby and Daisy flee the Gotham hotel room wherein this impromptu party has so completely deteriorated, and head for home. On the way, Daisy takes the wheel, only to kill Myrtle in a hit and run incident when the unhappy mechanic’s wife—believing Gatsby’s car is Tom’s, and tries to stop it after a row with her husband over the source of a pearl necklace he could have never paid for. Convinced that Gatsby was driving, and given his name by Tom, who stops at the garage in the aftermath of the tragedy, Wilson later goes to Gatsby’s home and kills him. He then kills himself. The tabloids paint Gatsby as Myrtle’s killer, adding that she was his mistress. A pariah, only Nick attends his funeral, and Daisy and Tom go on a trip to Europe. Incensed that the only truly great man he ever knew has been dragged through the muckraking tabloid headlines in death, rather than shown the reverence and respect Nick believes he merits to the end, Nick sits alone with the coffin in the cleaned out castle.
The film makes Nick the story’s omnipresent narrator, a device that underscores the fact that he’s writing it all down as a curative at the suggestion of his psychiatrist. After all, Nick wants to be a writer and, apparently, losing Gatsby has pushed him to check into a sanitarium. It’s there that the film actually opens, a shot of the nuthouse gates foreshadowing the images to come of Gatsby’s gates, imported from Italy. In a nice use of special effects, the film is bracketed by a shot of the crepuscular blue-tinted island of Manhattan inundated by a blizzard of white typewriter letters. At other times, Nick’s handwriting is projected onto the walls, effectively displaying his passion not only for writing, but for his subject. One can’t help but wonder about Nick’s amity for Gatsby. Little as he knows about the man, he is ever faithful—when Gatsby’s butlers give a thuggish beatdown to one of his party guests, Nick watches, impassive, as the camera moves away from the violence and then moves in on the shutting gates of the estate, which bear the motto “ad finem fidelis,” or faithful to the end. Nick’s rejection of each of the liberated women who move on him suggests feelings for Gatsby not only run deep, but remain buried there. Whenever in the company of Gatsby and Daisy, it’s hard for Nick to keep from looking on: he sits between them at their reunion, then suddenly rushes off. He accompanies Daisy on her trysting liaison’s at Gatsby’s home, occupying himself by peering at them across doorways, over balconies, through windows, etc. Since Daisy’s his cousin, Nick’s sexual interests are certainly unconventional—be they for Daisy or for Jay Gatsby. My money is on the latter.
In this sense, Gatsby is a story of unrequited love all around. Jordan, the tennis champ can’t pursue the married Daisy, but Daisy hardly notices. Apparently bisexual, Jordan’s guarded interest in Nick also reaps no fruits and, in the end, Nick’s flat out dismissal of her sends her off in a tizzy. Myrtle’s affections for Tom are doomed by his patriotic devotion to the institution of marriage. Tom’s frustrated hunt for taboo thrills are abated by his bigoted adherence to the strictures of upper class protocol. Myrtle’s husband, Wilson, is thwarted in his effort to maintain a happy home by her wish to escape into Tom’s comfortable domain. Daisy, shackled by the vows she’s made to Tom and her role as a mother, prevents herself from breaking these chains to be with Tom. And Nick, having cast aside his youthful dream of writing the great American novel, maintains his friendship for Gatsby despite any and all transgressions in order to be close to the object of a closeted love he doesn’t dare admit. This is the tangled web of strife—strife derived from the uncontrollable urges his characters believe is love—F Scott Fitzgerald weaves in Gatsby. Director Baz Luhrman creates a spectacular world of rich colors and quick pacing that he overlaps visually and sonically to create this overriding sense of fragile humans bedazzled by the glitz and promise offered by desire, much to our lament. As much as his sweeping camera movements seem obvious in the party scenes, he continues to keep our gaze twisting and turning during the more intimate scenes, as well. This works to keep our interest, our eyes full of visual candy, and also succeeds at putting us off-guard; the sense of being on edge, on thin ice, or in a cabin with the water three feet high and rising maintains throughout the film. In tandem with Nick’s often erudite voiceover observations and surmises closely intercut with rapid-fire dialogue that abounds with the witty quips and sharp demi-slang that peppered the conversation of Jazz Age socialites, the pacing rarely falters. What seemed a short story stretched to feature length in the Redford-Kinason film has become a nearly faithful interpretation of a period, if not the book itself. In fact, although he’s relied on fewer details from the book, Luhrman’s picture is a much richer depiction. And despite the constant narration by Carraway, he’s carefully drawn his cast into presenting a work of skillfully balanced characterizations that come across as a well-nuanced ensemble effort. On closer inspection, while there are a number of group scenes that each achieve a singular dynamic, this effect is the result of a practiced auteur on top of his game. As much as he’s clearly allowed the actors to bring their craft to bear, Luhrman’s layering of cinematic and storytelling elements and techniques confirm his ultimate control of every last aspect involved in the filmmaking process. The only complaint I have is with the forced blending of hip-hop and rap with jazz melodies. Such musical mixing has been done before by many others, but never to my liking. Perhaps this is a personal bias that others overlooked. That said, much as I hate to admit it, Luhrman’s Gatsby is big budget film at its contemporary best. I won’t be surprised if it grabs a slew of awards, and I’m sure it will find its way into many a filmmaking curriculum to come.