‘Gatsby’ Gets Look Right, But Not The Subtlety


Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a hodgepodge film that works very well on some levels and terribly on others. To understand it, you must realize that this is not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s version of the novel. Much of the book was written from inside the characters’ heads. This movie is all about the exteriors. It works because in many ways, the novel itself is all about surface appearances vs. morality. But there was subtlety in the book that the movie lacks.

The story is narrated by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a bond trader from the Midwest who lives in the nouveau riche Long Island community of West Egg, next to the home of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), known for shady business deals and wild parties. He is invited to a party at Gatsby’s home and learns that the man longs for Carraway’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), his first love, who is married to aristocrat Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and makes her home in East Egg, a far more prestigious area. Since most of us who have finished high school English know that in the end Gatsby sacrifices himself for Daisy, the plot can remain where it is since the movie stays pretty close to the story.

The problem is that the movie, like the book, tries to delineate between the images people create and the real world. Nothing is as it seems. Gatsby, of course, is not an aristocrat, but a kid from the Midwest who attempts to present a rich, noblesse oblige façade that is easily pierced by all the blue bloods. Essentially, he is a tool for their entertainment. Daisy is hardly a great catch; although beautiful, she has the intelligence and personality of your average Kardashian. She is not much more than a showpiece for her husband, who has at least one mistress. Tom, although from a wealthy family, is essentially a thug, more interested in his possession of Daisy than loving her. Carraway, particularly as presented in this movie, is a weak sycophant.

Luhrmann recaptures the look of the era, the early 1920s, brilliantly. Ironically, since the parties and a lot of the action is only superficial, the use of 3-D becomes somewhat overwhelming. You can feel as though you are actually at the parties, even though very little of importance happens there. Unfortunately, his choice of music, almost all of it modern, distances us from the time. Jay-Z and other modern musicians may be popular now, but he probably would have done better to let them do cover versions of the music of the time. It would have enhanced reality. Luhrmann is famous for using modern music, but it worked far better in Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet than in this one.

The cast is uniformly very good. DiCaprio is one of our era’s best actors and manages to capture many of the aspects of Gatsby. It is a star turn. Mulligan, a very talented Brit, handles the accent and personal vacuity of Daisy. Maguire is good as Carraway despite a bad characterization by the script. Edgerton was good as an appropriate villain. I particularly liked Elizabeth Debicki as the enigmatic Jordan Baker, and Jason Clarke was especially effective as George Wilson.

But the movie seemed empty; the characters went through their lines well, the costumes and look of the movie were great, but somehow things just did not come together. Fitzgerald wanted a commentary on class warfare, with a rather harsh look at the pretentiousness of the formerly poor. But times have changed, and when the real stars of a film are mostly playing the “little guys,” things turn on their ear.

Fitzgerald originally thought of Gatsby as a kind of tragic clown, the small-town war veteran who gets rich too quickly, changes his name, and is put down by society for his presumptuousness. But when the really big star at the center of the film plays the part, Daisy’s willingness to be with him is far more understandable. That has been a problem in all the movies made of the story; I believe this is the fourth. We wind up rooting so hard for the hero that it tilts the essential points offered by Fitzgerald. We like the nouveau riche, partly, because many of us fit that category.

It is nicely done but hardly a great film, a nice break from the superhero movies coming out. But you might be disappointed if you expect something really special.