The Great Gatsby
All great national novels are about failure. They have to be: Any attempt to describe a nation-state’s ideals without incorporating the folly of its myriad, competing realities cries out for ruination–if not from within, at least from without. So it is that a character like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby can seize a fragment of the American dream–the conviction that a man who owns nothing might through industry live to inherit the world–hold it too tightly, and lose all.
Yes, that was a spoiler. In the case of The Great Gatsby going without seems almost preposterous–like reviewing Titanic without suggesting the ship goes down at the end. But I will say this much: This review is not about fealty to the book, although I got the distinct impression while watching the film that director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet) understood how very much the major turns in his story arise first and foremost from the cadence of the written word. Why else would Luhrmann return with such frequency to scenes from his frame narrative, which has narrator Nick Carraway writing The Great Gatsby while describing it to his therapist? Why else, too, would Luhrmann allow CGI words to supplant visuals and subsume music when approaching some of the most iconic lines in Fitzgerald’s text? Simply put, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby oozes internal crisis, and by cleaving so much to the source material, at times the film has no choice but to defer.
Like the book, too, this film is emphatically a lament, a eulogy–and ascertaining precisely what it strives to eulogize is a better route to evaluating its success than mere comparison with the source text.
To this end, we are given to understand that Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a not-exactly-rich man (though from monied stock) broken by the experiences he bears witness to one frenetic summer in Long Island, New York. There, in a modest cottage on West Egg, he neighbours the most extravagant home of the “nouveau riche”, a palatial estate owned by the elusive Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and swarmed every weekend by city folk eager to bask in the excesses of wealth on prominent (yea, even blatantly phallic) display.
Across the water, on East Egg, lives Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), a “golden girl” married to a blatantly racist, philandering millionnaire (also of old money) named Tom Buchanan. As befits the times, Tom (Joel Edgerton) gets away with his racist commentary, and his philandering (and his egregious moustache, I might add), for Nick is no proactive interloper, but rather a watcher of surrounding events whose first articulated moral qualm with proceedings arises when it seems Gatsby has been gradually befriending him in the hopes of an opportunity to have tea with Daisy.
Such cultural double standards make bold and routine appearances in much of Luhrmann’s employment of Fitzgerald’s source material, and in conjunction with his choice to use decidedly contemporary music (rap, chamber pop, recent jazz re-workings of classic material), the reviewer may well wonder how much we both can and should take the socioeconomic hypocrisies of the 1920s as having direct correlates with hypocrisies today.
Whatever the answer, Daisy is offered no simple choice between two men. Rather, she’s made to choose between continuing a marriage with a man who was sleeping with another woman the day their daughter was born, and living with a man whose only request of her is that she completely recant ever having loved the man she married. An act of violence at one man’s hands brings about her ultimate decision–but it, too, is a conflicted moment for Luhrmann’s viewers, who at this juncture already know the other man, for all his talk of superior bloodlines, is also capable of brute force.
Similarly, while Tom’s regular lover remains a secondary character in this film, trapped in a lurid middle kingdom of the impoverished and downtrodden coal miners at a pit-stop between Long Island and the Big Apple, Luhrmann also takes a critical opportunity (through musical accompaniment as much as through visual attention) to align our sympathy at a vital moment with her.
And then, of course, there’s Gatsby: Gatsby, who believes himself a child of God in the most blessed of senses–a streak of cosmic brilliance destined to hurl ever upwards or else not at all. In his recollection of the past, he perceives that choosing to love Daisy was an act of choosing to inherit less than his full entitlement of the heavens. Even though a powerful vein of post-WWI PTSD ever lingers as a possible reason for his obsessive tendencies, how much are we really to sympathize with him in making all his future aspirations rely on another person’s complete concession of personal experience to his vision of her at that one, precious moment five years past?
Indeed, can we really sympathize with anyone in this world of big talk and fast riches? Does even our narrator, for all that we see he has been laid low with depression after the events that unfold that one extravagant summer, deserve our sympathy for being shocked–utterly shocked!–at the callousness and the cruelty of the company he keeps, after what we viewers are given to make of their deeply flawed characters from the start?
Certainly, Baz Luhrmann lines this adaptation with the kind of visual spectacles well befitting the circus-like excesses of the rich, the gaudiness of the urban working class, and the oppressive squalor of the abject rural poor. But as Nick stresses (over and over) that Gatsby was the most hopeful human being he had ever known, and ever would again, he (at least through Luhrmann’s directorial lens) hardly makes the point that this kind of hope was worth having or aspiring towards in the first place.
As many in the Occupy Wall Street movement just a few years back were not protesting the injustice and disparity of existing social structures, so much as the fact that they had not been given the opportunities they desired to come out on top of it, so too might Nick be said to be reaching for a green light on a distant shore that we should all have put out of mind… a long, long time ago. For a film expressly cautioning against living in the past, it’s difficult to tell how much Luhrmann’s opulent retelling of The Great Gatsby nevertheless relies on the hope that we will.