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[REVIEW] The Opulence of the American Dream Comes To Life In Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

May 9, 2013

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The opulence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring twenties novel The Great Gatsby comes to life once again in Baz Lurhmann’s remake of the classic film that turned Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston into the acting behemoths of today.  The 1974 classic has remained an endearing reminder of ill-fated lovers and the price of greed and self-absorbance.  With Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carrie Mulligan taking a turn as Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and Daisy Buchanan, the new film gives the 2013 audience inside access to the lavish lifestyle of the glittering twenties when the rich had a laissez-faire attitude when it came to marriage, social climbing, infidelity and spending.

When stripped to its bare bones, the heart of The Great Gatsby is a man willing to go to the lengths of the earth  (lying with dogs to amass a massive fortune) to prove to the woman he’s been in love with for more than five years that he’s worth loving.  The naive Jay Gatsby is still hopeful, shady but a bit more lovable;  Nick Carraway does a better job of showing us how lost the outsider can get when given access to the upper crust folk; and Daisy Buchanan becomes a bit more hated for being a gold digger, cold-hearted and a foul seductress willing to sink her claws into our doomed protagonist.  As much as the audience roots for Gatsby and Daisy to finally run away together, its left with emptiness, anger and a bit of solace.

The film opens with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway confessing his angst about his past to a therapist, who presses him to talk about the one subject he’s kept bottled up inside since his departure from New York City, that being Jay Gatsby.  In 3D, the audience is drawn into Nick’s world, snowy, cold and lonely after the death of his dear friend.  Nick decides to write down his memories of his time with Gatsby, and thus the movie roars to life in all of its colorful splendor with a party scene as the voice of rapper Jay-Z crescendos into the foreground.

Yellow cars, yellow gold like Slick Rick Still tip on four-four’s (Who?) Four-four’s at the 4-0, (Wait), for O Dollars fall on the skin, some might call it sin Politicians all move for money, what the hell are we callin’ them? Low life…100 dolla, 100 dolla bill real, uh.”

Yea! The soundtrack takes the audience for a bit of a loop as modern rap, Beyonce’s old hit songs, a poor rip off the late Amy Winehouse’s haunting song Back to Black, and deep base hits juxtaposed against retro dance moves like the Charleston step.  Lana Del Rey and Florence + the Machine lend raw emotion with their ballads for the film. The audience gets this cacophony throughout the, which you’ll either love or hate. But I digress.

We meet the chauvinistic and racist Tom Buchanan, perched on a horse with nothing better to do than his mistress, lunching with friends and playing polo on his massive grounds.  When we meet Daisy and her friend, pro golfer Jordan, it’s like a dream.  They are giggling on a white chaise with just their dazzling jewelry and dainty hands visible to Nick.  The open 360 degree French doors let in a gentle breeze as whispy white curtains billow in the room, as if in a drunken haze.

The “innocent” Daisy Buchanan comes up for air to greet her cousin Nick, showing off her impressive diamond ring and Tiffany & Co. diamond headpiece.  Swoon! We’re all caught in her trap.  For a woman so enchanting, we’re left wondering why her husband would be shacking up with another woman when the telephone rings five times in the middle of their luncheon.  Take a hint mistress Myrtle! Daisy is upset by her husband’s extramarital affairs but acknowledges that it’s better for a woman to be a fool.

Cut to Gatsby’s house.  As party crashers immerse themselves into the life of a man they’ve never met, the audience quickly melds into the lifestyle of the nouveau riche and left wondering who Gatsby really is.  It’s not until Nick gets a personal invitation that we get to see the man, the myth and the legend behind the large menagerie all set up to ensnare one particular woman.

When we finally meet Jay Gatsby, we start seeing stars! He’s the epitome of the inescapable notion of “chasing the American dream.” He’s got swagger, an impressive wardrobe and seems slightly cold and awkward.  He’s constantly reaching for something.  In its literal sense, he’s reaching out for  Daisy via the “green light” beaming directly across the water from Daisy Buchanan’s house.

In Gatsby’s style, he tries his best to impress Nick with all grandeur.  Taking him to a speakeasy, a fast paced drive through Manhattan and getting impressive New York scenesters to vouch for him.  Gatsby finds respite after Nick agrees to invite cousin Daisy over for lunch.  Again Gatsby tries too hard to impress Daisy by doing an extreme makeover on his Nick’s meager summer cottage.

A dozen footmen dressed in black carry over cakes, macaroons and flowers in a quirky processional with Gatsby in his white Brooks Brothers garb to Nick’s.  The awkwardness of a schoolboy about to meet his crush is felt by both the characters and the audience, who await with baited breath along with Gatsby as he anticipates Daisy’s arrival.  When they finally reunite, we’re swept away in the romance and somehow root for Jay and Daisy to finally make a go of it, despite  the repercussions.  In Gatsby’s own words, “It’s called greed old sport!”  as all the characters reach for more and more and more, despite having so much already.

The audience is torn, along with Nick, who gives us a voyeuristic glimpse into the torrid romance between cousin Daisy and Gatsby.  The lovers steal moments in between parties as Tom senses he’s losing his wife for good.  We get to find out more about Gatsby  and indulge in his afternoon delights his paramour.  After the drawn-out courtship, Daisy finally decides to tell her husband that she never loved him.  She wants to leave him for Gatsby.

What better way to announce you’re cheating on your husband than at lunch with him, your lover, your cousin and your best friend? Daisy, who now starts showing her true colors, chickens out when Gatsby begins to break the news to Tom. But it’s too late! Through body language and tension so thick you could cut through with a knife, Tom knows that Daisy is in love with Gatsby.  The film crescendos into overdrive when she suggests an afternoon at the Plaza Hotel, where shit hits the fan.

A cockfight between Gatsby and Tom via a car chase leads the characters to Tom’s mistress, who is upstairs, unhappy and lonely living with her lower class gas station attending husband.  She’s ignored of course, when Tom sees Gatsby about to win the race to the Plaza.  It’s hot, balmy and tense in the hotel room as a butler chips away at a giant ice block to make ice chips for whiskey.  Gatsby finally tells Tom his wife is leaving him and that she never loved him.  Of course, Daisy can’t make up her mind and after confirming his revelation, backtracks and says she once loved Tom.

Tom is slightly ruffled but knows he has the trump card when he reveals Gatsby’s humble beginnings and shady business dealings to amass his wealth.  After more baiting, Gatsby finally loses his cool and nearly gets into a fist fight with him.  Seeing her lover lose his temper, and realizing that the mythology behind his fame has just crumbled after her husband’s bombshell, Daisy gets agitated and fleas the Plaza.  Gatsby pursues her still.  His shiny yellow car roars to life in the dark night, driving straight into Tom’s mistress. Who dies romantically as her expensive pearls strands tear and splash all over the dusty tarred street.  It’s  a hit and run as crowds gather, including Tom, who stops in with Jordan and Nick to assess the situation.  There is some commotion between Tom and his dead mistress’s husband, George, after which he pins the murder and affair on Gatsby.  There will be blood, swears the newly widowed gas station attendant.

SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK 

Nick’s view of Gatsby is temporarily flawed after discovering the car in the hit and run accident was his.  We find out after a heated argument that Daisy was behind the wheel. Gatsby the protector tries to stand guard at the Buchanan house just in case Tom lost his cool and hit Daisy, which never happens because the married coupe find solace and somehow decide to flea their troubles. Gatsby has hope that Daisy will ring him up in the morning to make plans.  He stays up until the break of dawn with Nick and suggests a dip in his pristine pool.  After all he hasn’t used it all summer.  Nick declines because like the regular folks, he has to go to work.

Gatsby gets in his black swim leotard and dives into the crisp aqua pool with his initials JG stamped at the bottom.  He dives deep under water, washing off the previous evening’s hell a he waits for Daisy’s call.  Ring…ring…ring…Gatsby emerges from the water as he hears the faint sounds of the telephone.  Could it be Daisy? He gets out of the pool but it’s too late, behind him is George who lifts his gun and shoots him.  In perhaps one of the most beautiful deaths captured on screen, Gatsby plunges back into the water just as another loud bang comes from a self inflicted gunshot wound by George.

After Gatsby’s death, Myrtle’s car accident and affair is pinned on him.  None of the hundreds of party crashers or business associates of Gatsby come by to pay respects.  As Gatsby’s body lies in state in his mausoleum of a house with paparazzi feeding on his corpse, Nick desperately tries to ring up Daisy to come say goodbye to her former lover.  He’s shocked and awed back to reality when he learns that her cousin and her husband have left without a trace.

The film cuts away to Nick approaching the dock to see Gatsby reach out for the green light on his dock and as Nick gives his final monologue “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” the audience is left with a haunting reminder that New York is not only the place for true hustlers but  a place you can never be alone but will always be lonely.

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