Some will find that this fresh-faced Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio movie infuses the classic book with new life. That may be good. But is it a great Gatsby?
Money is magic if you have enough of it. With a wave and a word, you conjure castles from the evening breeze and fill it with parties pulled from a hat. Throw money like confetti and watch it turn into cars and pools, friends and influence. Let it dust everything in its prismatic glitter—so tactile, so tangible—and you might forget that it's all illusion. A trick of light and shadow that melts when the money does.
Neither magic nor money can bring us what's truly worthwhile, what's lasting. But that doesn't stop us from reaching for both.
Jay Gatsby is a master magician. He arrived on the coast of West Egg around 1922 as if by invisible dragon, buying a castle and filling it with wonder. Fountains. Elephant tusks. Classic paintings. A newfangled juicer. Every weekend he throws open his enchanted land to the famous and notorious—New York politicians, Broadway actors, silent-screen stars, Prohibition-era gangsters.
He is, to his guests, a mystery. Indeed, few have ever even met him. Some believe he doesn't exist. And in a way, they're right.
But Nick Carroway has seen him. He's his neighbor, after all. Gatsby's monstrous house looms over Nick's modest old gardener's cottage. Gatsby's seen Nick too. And he even sends the man an invitation to one of his parties—the only guest, it would seem, to have ever received one. The two meet that night and an unlikely friendship grows.
Is it really so unlikely though? Perhaps not.
For five years Gatsby has loved from afar Nick's cousin Daisy—a beautiful, married socialite. And for five years his every move has been about magicking her, permanently, into his life. He bought his mansion because it was across the bay from hers. He throws his parties in the hopes that she might attend, that he might sweep her off her feet.
The parties have been fruitless and the green light on Daisy's dock still seems a world away. But Nick represents another, perhaps last best chance, and so Gatsby asks for what he feels is an impossibly big favor: Would Nick be so kind as to … invite Daisy for tea?
The magic of money can do many things, but it can't create love or make five years' worth of life disappear.
That doesn't mean Gatsby won't try to make it do both.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
The Great Gatsby doesn't really have any heroes. Not exactly. Everyone here is flawed—and that's at least partly the point.
Yes, Jay Gatsby loves a married woman, and that's a problem. And yet there's something in that love that speaks to an innocence and purity at odds with Gatsby's decadent Jazz Age. When he kissed her—long before she met and married Tom—Gatsby knew "I would be forever wed to her." He wants to rescue Daisy from Tom—to protect her and care for her and treat her as the queen he imagines her to be. And in a moment of crisis, he shows a willingness to sacrifice his own well-being, and even life, for hers.
We can also find something admirable in Nick's loyalty to Gatsby. We come to understand that most of Jay's innumerable friends are fair-weather. Nick's the only one who sticks with him to the very end. In a movie that explores vacuous consumption and fickle relationships, Nick and Jay stand out because they understand there's more to life.
And let me stress again that we're not supposed to like or blindly accept the bad behavior we see in The Great Gatsby. This is a story that asks us to grapple with the meaning of meaning—to feel the inherent emptiness that Nick eventually feels. We can see the glamorous tale that swirls around him, in some ways, as an echo of Ecclesiastes:
"I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. … Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun."
We hear that Gatsby considers himself to be a true "son of God"—not in the sense we all are, but in that he had been divinely set apart for great and marvelous things. We hear how his love for Daisy tethered his ability to rise in the world, and his mind was "no longer free to romp like the mind of God." And as such, it's tempting to cast his act of sacrifice near the end—when he takes the blame for something horrible Daisy had done—in a quasi-spiritual hue, sacrificing himself so that his true love could live and thrive.
He inhabits a landscape that too is infused with a sense of spirituality—no part of it more evocative than the valley of ashes that serves as both a physical and metaphorical bridge between the East and West Egg and the carnality of New York City. The name itself, I think, is an intentional biblical echo, most explicitly of Jeremiah 31:40 ("The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown"), as it serves as a locale for secret sins and death.
It's telling that the valley is presided over by an old billboard featuring the oversized, bespectacled eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, who looks over the landscape like "the eyes of God." Eckleburg's steady eyes "see" Tom Buchanan's tryst with Myrtle Wilson. They see what happens when Myrtle is struck and killed by Gatsby's speeding Duesenberg. And when Myrtle's husband prepares to get his revenge, he tells himself (and us) that "God sees everything" as the camera again pans to the billboard.
Gatsby and Daisy have a sexual relationship. They knew each other before she wed Tom, and we see their first interlude in flashback; Gatsby slips her dress straps off her shoulder and they kiss and clutch and lie together. In the movie's present, the two renew their tryst (though Daisy's married), sometimes lounging in bed, kissing, caressing and apparently undressed.
We see less but hear more of Tom's affair with Myrtle. Nick (and moviegoers) hear the two having loud sex in an adjoining room. When Tom and Myrtle throw a party, women and men cavort in their underwear; there's much kissing and sensuality. Women dance seductively.
We see cleavage-, midriff-, backside- and shoulder-baring outfits. One woman slinks around in a web-like dress that, in the brief glimpses we get of it, seems to be nothing but web. When a man asks for a woman to pose with her bottom showing, she says, "I'm not one of those models, but you can [take a picture] if you want." Her companion smacks her backside.
Myrtle is hit and killed by a speeding car, and we see a graphic depiction of the accident (twice) in slow motion. Her body strikes the front of the vehicle, flies up and hits the windshield (breaking it) before falling lifeless to the ground. Her corpse is covered with wounds; her chest is deeply cut, and her face seems to be missing a patch of skin around the forehead. Blood is seen around her mouth.
Someone shoots someone else in the back, and a tiny bullet hole leaks blood. A man commits suicide; we see him put a gun in his mouth before the camera turns aside as he pulls the trigger. A man viciously strikes a woman. Another is repeatedly punched. Gatsby grabs a guy by the lapels in a very aggressive manner, and Nick says that in that moment you could believe that he had killed a man.
Crude or Profane Language
Language was a bit more genteel in The Great Gatsby's day. But audiences will still hear a smattering of profanity, including "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." Christ's name is abused once, and God's is misused a half-dozen times (twice with "d‑‑n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Forget Prohibition: Everyone here drinks (wine and champagne along with a dizzying variety of other intoxicating beverages), and most drink to outrageous excess. Gatsby made his fortune at least in part by bootlegging—selling liquor "over the counter" at a chain of drugstores. Nick (whom a doctor later diagnoses as "morbidly alcoholic") gets drunk often; he staggers around in his undershirt or lies almost comatose on couches. At one party, his inebriation is aided by a tranquilizer pill, exchanged with a kiss. People stagger, slur their words, appear in stereotypically drunken, disheveled states.
Whether taking us inside speakeasies or to lavish parties, the story doesn't laud these drunks, though. They're often presented as boorish, foolish or both. And it's telling that Gatsby is the only character who never drinks to excess (we're told in the book it's a way he kept his advantage over others) as he's surrounded by inebriates who turn weepy or belligerent. We learn that Jay once saved a drunken ship captain from wrecking his boat, leading to a lifelong friendship.
People smoke frequently too. Tom puffs on massive cigars; ladies smoke using those elegant cigarette holders.
Other Negative Elements
Gatsby is involved in a variety of underhanded businesses, many of which are only darkly hinted at. He is an associate of a man named Wolfsheim, a gangster among gangsters whom we're told fixed the 1919 World Series. People gamble in speakeasies and at Gatsby's house. The police commissioner is a regular at a speakeasy, and "morality protectors" are just as guilty in a song.
Tom is racist, sometimes fretting about how other races might one day overthrow their "natural" white masters. He hurls racial epithets ("kike") and believes that his old-money pedigree makes him verifiably better than those with less storied families.
Who is Jay Gatsby? It's the question that's fired a thousand imaginations, with theories flowing as freely as the champagne in his tale. He's an Oxford man. Related to the Kaiser. He's a bootlegger. A German spy. He killed a man.
Through Nick's eyes, we grow to understand more of who Gatsby is—but there's one facet to the man that Nick fails to fully convey:
Gatsby's a little crazy.
He's crazy in the same way we all are, I think, only he has the wealth and power to express it more fully. He longs to turn back the clock. He wants to reset life to what it was five years before, when Daisy and he had first met and the world was full of promise. He wants to erase Tom Buchanan from Daisy's mind. He wants to, perhaps, return his soul to the state it was in before he made so many moral compromises of his own (while keeping his castle, of course). I wonder sometimes whether Gatsby truly loved Daisy that much, or whether part of him was just yearning for his own lost innocence.
"Jay," Nick cautions him, "You can't repeat the past."
"Of course you can," Gatsby says. "Of course you can."
He's wrong. Everyone knows that. But he can't accept it. Nick describes it as a remarkable capacity to hope. "He was the most hopeful people I've ever met," he says. But in truth, we could exchange the word hope for another: delusion.
In one of the film's most poignant moments, we see Gatsby scrubbing his Duesenberg furiously. The car destroyed a life, and the evidence is everywhere, from the smashed windshield to the dented front … and yet he washes the car and talks to Nick about Daisy—his whole focus still on Daisy—as if the tragic evening could be wiped clean through work and wishing.
Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby pays close attention to its classic F. Scott Fitzgerald source material. It nails the decadence of the age through creative use of modern music (Jay-Z scored the film) and over-the-top imagery. It alludes to many of the themes that make English teachers swoon. It even captures something of Fitzgerald's sorbet-smooth prose.
But if the book about Jay Gatsby is cynical and ironic, the movie is trusting, even hopeful—much like Gatsby himself. That sometimes manifests in positive ways: Nick, for instance, struggles with whether to reintroduce Gatsby to Daisy, with her now married and all. So what the movie loses in subtlety, it tries to make up in heart and conscience.
That heart needs a hero, though, and Gatsby is a problematic hero to have. Luhrmann loses some of Fitzgerald's subtlety and detachment and, in so doing, practically forces audiences into Gatsby's embrace—asking us to forgive and forget his criminal activities and that he's trying to woo away another man's wife.
Some will still find that this movie infuses the classic book with new life. And that may be good. But is it great? Sorry. This Gatsby falls short, old sport.