The rise and fall of Jay Gatsby
by David Lamble
I'm a sucker for director Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, filmed on Aussie locations, scored by Jay-Z, and starring real-life best friends Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway. I gulped down F. Scott Fitzgerald's 50,000-word novel and even endured the dreadful 1974 Jack Clayton-directed movie (script by Francis Ford Coppola).
The first big switch Luhrmann (with co-writer Craig Pearce) pulls on both Fitzgerald and Clayton/Coppola is to flesh out the role of the novel's all-knowing narrator, Nick Carraway. Maguire's Nick relates the rise and spectacular demise of his friend Jay Gatsby to a shrink (Aussie legend Jack Thompson) as he dries out from booze addiction. Unlike Sam Waterston's simpering, passive Nick in the 1974 version, Maguire's wry, grounded take, rooted in craft and his long friendship with DiCaprio, allows a modern audience to see DiCaprio's boldly stylized Gatsby as more than a petulant, nouveau-riche interloper. This allows us to grasp the degree to which Fitzgerald's Gatsby is at heart a story of class warfare, disguised as a doomed love affair.
There's an enchanting moment midway through the story when Gatsby asks a huge favor of Nick: to allow him to have a tea-time sortie with Nick's cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). As the two men circle each other in the rainforest-like splendor of Gatsby's garden, we see just how vulnerable this man/boy is, how much his Prohibition hooch-fueled bacchanal parties have been staged as the ultimate extravagant gesture, to prove to the born-rich Daisy that she should repudiate her marriage to the racist, womanizing Tom (a ferocious Joel Edgerton) and run off with the former poor-boy Gatsby. His new-found wealth seems suspiciously tied to the criminal businesses of the sinister Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim (Amitabh Bachchan). It's in this scene that Nick discovers why he – a struggling bond salesman who pays $80 a month to rent a humble cottage next to Gatsby's estate – is the only one to receive a personal invitation to Jay's big parties. Rather than feeling badly used, Nick is deeply touched, and in signature Maguire adolescent exuberance, grants the favor.
"I'm going to call Daisy and invite her to tea."
Gatsby, embarrassed at the nakedness of his need, offers to throw some business Nick's way.
"You wouldn't have to do any business with Wolfsheim."
"It's a favor, Jay, a favor."
This emotionally resonant scene sets the stage for Gatsby's fall, but also allows the filmmakers to pay off clues about Gatsby's debt to the mobster, believed to be based on the real-life gambler Arnold Rothstein, whose dastardly coup was fixing the 1919 World Series.
As Fitzgerald fans know all-too-well, this brilliant, hard-drinking literary genius was in no way politically correct, by either today's standards or those of the early flapper era. Not only is the character of the attack-dog-like heavy Tom Buchanan steeped in Henry Ford-worthy, paranoid-white-guy racial theories, but Fitzgerald was quite capable of revealing his highly ambivalent if not virulently anti-Semitic views in almost an ambush style. Deep into the novel, a female associate of Wolfsheim's is boldly introduced as a "Jewess." And this movie Gatsby is the first time in eons in which the "K-word" has been dropped (once).
This realism comes into sharper focus in appreciating the filmmakers' musically hip soundtrack. One of the reasons you love this Gatsby, if you do, is the gloriously anachronistic mash-up of George Gershwin and Jay-Z, along with Jack White covering U2's "Love Is Blindness," Fergie's "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody," and Sia's "Kill and Run."
Watching Gatsby from the "conversation pit" of Berkeley's California Theatre multiplex, I felt like I had Nick's invite. While Robert Redford has been forgiven his halting, blandly boring, almost cadaverous Gatsby, it's hard to get over what a terminal snooze the 1974 Oscar-winning (for Costume Design and Music) production was. Coppola has never forgiven Clayton the "mutilation" of his vision of Gatsby and Daisy with a long set-piece between Redford and the equally miscast Mia Farrow. The new Gatsby doesn't try and make more of the enigma of this relationship than the screen possibly can. Luhrmann succeeds by sticking to his unique vision, and by trusting his beautiful man/boy leads to fill any gaps left by the underwhelming Carey Mulligan.
When I first saw the long-available trailer for this extravagant, postmodern Gatsby, I was worried that DiCaprio's take might come off as laughably over-the-top. Sure enough, an audience member at the California was chortling suspiciously, as if Leo might be a joke. But that's always the risk of exposing oneself to art in the company of people who have no stake in professional decorum. For those of us who delighted in Leo's sassy Rimbaud (in the queer-friendly Total Eclipse) and Tobey's turn as the plucky guerilla fighter standing up to slavery in Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil, this is our Gatsby.