Society is decadent when satire is impossible. It’s terminal when criticism is incomprehensible. Baz Luhrmann’s colorful and chaotic re-imagining of The Great Gatsby neatly inverts Fitzgerald’s savage critique of the American Dream, turning a tragic warning into a gushing celebration of wealth, luxury, and decadence.
Fitzgerald himself exemplified the contradiction within the American soul, despising the rich and their selfish, degenerate ways while attempting to live in grand style and lusting for the high life. Luhrmann ignores this. The tension between spiritual purity and material success is all but lost, characters are simplified, and rather than an epic meditation on the meaning of the American experience, we get a love story aimed at teenage girls.
Luhrmann frames the story so that it is written by Nick Carraway from the behind the walls of a sanitarium. While literary purists are surely howling in rage, Luhrmann’s choice is defensible, and based in Fitzgerald’s other writing and an oft-overlooked passage that confirms Carraway is in fact the author.
Where Luhrmann falls flat is in his insistence in overwhelming the viewer with chaotic graphic tableaux (in 3-D!), explosions of color and activity that tell us nothing. It’s an empty spectacle. In many ways, it’s Melancholia in reverse. Instead of sparse (but beautiful) moving paintings that tell us much by showing us little, Luhrmann simply vomits as much as possible onto the screen.
This would be permissible – even praiseworthy – if this was a sly commentary on the nature of Gatsby itself. When Carraway meets Gatsby, he turns and flashes his “understanding” smile and raises his champagne glass as fireworks erupt in the background. Some in the audience started laughing but this kind of over the top introduction works. It captures the essence of Gatsby – the helplessly hopeful American golden boy from North Dakota who has remade himself into the paragon of American materialism but somehow retains that inner idealistic core. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast and at his best, carrying the movie forward on the force of his charisma.
Unfortunately, he is not given much to work with, and the film commits the unforgivable error of eliminating not just certain episodes, but some of the key themes of the novel. One of the key questions of the book is whether Gatsby as a man may not be worthy of the almost godlike portrayal Carraway creates for him. Gatsby is not just “Gatsby” – he’s an ideal, one created by an unreliable narrator. Here, the strong suggestion in the novel that Nick Carraway is gay is critical to understanding his account. While his descriptions of Daisy and Jordan Baker (the masculine female golfer he dates in the book) are colorless, his descriptions of Tom Buchanan and Gatsby are oddly detailed, even sensual. Witness his description of Tom Buchanan:
He was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively froward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body – he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage – a cruel body.
There’s also the odd stream of consciousness passage when the conclusion of a drunken night witnesses Carraway with a Mr. McKee, Carraway “standing beside his bed” and McKee between the sheets, “clad in his underwear,” showing him portfolios. Nick doesn’t return home until he catches the four o’ clock train.
If Carraway is a homosexual, it follows that he might be reading certain things into Gatsby the same way the enraptured Gatsby reads certain things into Daisy. Daisy’s oddly thrilling voice, her charm, and that peculiar sense of excitement she can inspire are important on their own terms, but we never get a description of her as some kind of beauty to rival Helen of Troy. Therefore, what explains Gatsby’s attraction?
The secret is revealed by Gatsby himself – her voice sounds like “money.” Daisy is not just some beautiful girl – she is the American Dream, a whole package of desires and delusions wrapped up in a single person.
Similarly, Gatsby transcends itself, both from the reader’s point of view and in the idealistic portrayal by an unreliable narrator who may be attracted to him. After Gatsby’s death, Nick meets Gatsby’s father and reads Gatsby’s childhood notes. With their strict schedules, focus on science and technology, and obsession with self-improvement, Gatsby is modeled after the original American, Benjamin Franklin and his Autobiography. Gatsby’s failure to win over Daisy in the end is Fitzgerald’s way of suggestion that the American Dream has faded, but we chase it anyway – “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Literally all of this is eliminated from the film. Rather than Daisy abandoning Gatsby, it is Gatsby who leaves Daisy, feeling unworthy of her until he is rich. There is separation between the wealth and the girl, while in the novel they were intimately connected. Movie Gatsby is more like Tony Montana – “First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.” Or just one, in this case.
Instead of Nick’s view of Gatsby and Gatsby’s view of Daisy being colored by wishful thinking, sexual tension, and naive idealism, we’re presented with a rather boring story about two buds and the chick one of them likes.
The Rise of the Colored Empires
Racism in modern cinema serves as a cue to modern audiences to tell the good guys from the bad guys. As all forms of greed, sex, and degeneracy have been transformed from sins into virtues, only racism (and heteronormativity) exist to reveal the face of modern evil. Thus, Luhrmann’s Tom Buchanan is not simply rich and entitled but positively despicable, and we know this by the uncomfortable look of Nick and Daisy when he brings up up The Rise of the Colored Empires by “Goddard.” The obvious reference to the The Rising Tide of Color by Lothrap Stoddard may have been a forced insertion by Fitzgerald to get the book published. Fitzgerald was no racial egalitarian, and his more politically incorrect observations have led to the usual wringing of hands and calls to banish the book from respectable discourse.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Buchanan’s Stoddard reference is meant to be unflattering to the character. Of course, in the novel Daisy is bored and Nick is distracted during this discourse. Tom’s preoccupations show his neglect of his wife and guest and his sense of entitlement and assumed personal superiority. In the film, both seem disturbed, as if Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway were both closeted anti-racists in the 1920s. In fact, some reviewers have predictably brought up Tom’s racism as the main reason she should leave him – the fact that she “permits” it implicates Daisy herself as having some dire flaw of character. We’re all John Brown now.
What can you expect when the soundtrack has been contributed by former crack dealer (and honored presidential guest) Jay Z? Luhrmann’s musical choices and spinning newspaper headlines spell out for us that the “The Roaring ’20s weren’t so different from today, and people are the same!” There is a deep rooted (and deliberately created) association in American culture between increasing wealth, increasing diversity, and moral enlightenment. Thus, Gatsby’s degenerate parties (and Tom’s distaste for them) show the audience who they are to root for. Good people pull for the free-spirited and enlightened Gatsby, who is playing black music in the 1920s. Good people also hate Tom Buchahan, who plays polo.
Where Fitzgerald’s text communicates unacceptable racial messages, the film simply reverses it. In the novel, Carraway notices newly wealthy Negroes showing off their wealth in an exaggerated fashion, with much eye-rolling and comical facial expressions. Maybe Lurhmann is right – not much has changed in 100 years. The sight moves Carraway to laughter, a fact which infuriates latter day critics. In the film, Carraway gazes upon the scene with admiration, even envy.
Similarly, Fitzgerald’s vicious caricature of Jewish criminality in the person of Meyer Wolfsheim has been utterly transformed. While Wolfsheim was an almost over the top portrayal of Hebraic corruption, the movie casts Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan to muddy the waters. Lacking Jewish physical or behavioral cues, Bachchan carries himself with a sense of dignity that allows critics to toast Lurhmann’s gesture of undermining Fitzgerald’s anti-Semitism in favor of celebrating the inherent nobility of the Other. Bachchan shoots authoritative and appraising looks at the particularly vibrant African dancers in his speakeasy while the rich goyim (including Buchanan and the chief of police) come to spend their money. We witness the outright celebration of modern degeneracy, as racial barriers are shattered in pursuit of pleasure and appropriately idealized Jews and their attractive goyishe frontmen lead the way.
Later, when a drunken Carraway looks rapturously over a poor neighborhood in NYC in the midst of a party with Tom and his friends, he sees an older white man in lecherous conduct with a black woman, presumably a prostitute. The portrayal of black culture as synonymous with either wealth or sexuality (or both) is deliberate. Luhrman would have made Daisy (or more likely Gatsby) black if the text would allow it.
Therefore, how to interpret Gatsby’s defeat? Daisy ultimately remains with Tom, unable to give Gatsby what he wants – an open declaration she never loved Tom. Tom taunts Gatsby with his new money origins, promoting Gatsby’s outburst of anger and loss of control which frightens Daisy. On the drive home from this confrontation, Daisy accidentally hits Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, killing her. She then drives away. Gatsby does whatever he can to protect Daisy in the aftermath, but ultimately it is Tom who solves the problem. Rather than the more subtle role he plays in the novel, here he all but puts the gun in the hands of Myrtle husband’s George and points him straight at Gatsby. George predictably takes his vengeance on the man he thinks cuckolded him and then butchered his wife.
In the aftermath of the film, only Nick is there to mourn Gatsby’s death. All of Gatsby’s supposed friends and guests, even Meyer Wolfsheim and Daisy herself, do not attend the funeral. Instead, the people of New York move on to the next amusement, Meyer moves on to the next con, and, crucially, Daisy defers to Tom and lets him bring her away. However, the film has her show regret, as if Tom is somehow forcing her into this, allowing the audience to relieve Daisy from the responsibility of choice.
Thus, the cinematic Gatsby suggests a different theme from that of the novel. Daisy becomes an innocent, a victim of circumstance and social convention. Gatsby is a misunderstood hero rather than a deluded idealist who dehumanized the woman he supposedly loved. Nick Carraway still ends the film disgusted with New York City, but ultimately because of the actions of Buchanan.
The Great Gatsby is the archetypal American tragedy, the national yearning to transcend boundaries, conventions, and history itself (“Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.”) before we are pulled under by our own mortality and limitations. It’s meaning of America – the failed revolt against fate.
In contrast, Luhrmann gives us a story of idealism and beauty perverted by The Man, that damn Harvard WASP (somehow from the South too) who put an end to the totally awesome parties that promised so very much. The film is a revolt against the book, an angry insistence that Gatsby’s dreams were pure, his idealism uncorrupted, his fantasy ultimately noble, but he was destroyed by a world he was too good for.
Having stripped Carraway of his own fantasies and projections, Luhrmann’s film unironically echoes Caraway’s tribute that Gatsby is “better than the whole damn lot of them.” If only the children of Jay Z’s new world could “run faster, stretch out our arms farther” than ultimately the Tom Buchanans of the world would be defeated and stop corrupting people’s like Daisy.
Luhrmann’s film is a revolt against difficult truths. And perhaps, in this way, it finally succeeds. It is, after all, Gatsbyesque.