When F. Scott Fitzgerald experienced the decadence of life on Long Island during the Roaring 20’s, he wrote a novel exposing its excesses. Critically acclaimed, the story of Jay Gatsby as The Great Gatsby has not only become required classic literature read by high school students for decades, but the story has also been put on film five times. This latest version directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Romeo and Juliet) is the most extravagant and creative yet and catches the spirit of the age on film just as Fitzgerald caught it in his writing.
The casting of this film is excellent. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a troubled Jay Gatsby who allows us to experience both the passion and the pathos of this driven man. Also perfectly cast is the love of his life, Daisy, played by Carey Mulligan in a demure and yet engagingly spoiled way. Also well cast is the narrator of our tale and the supposed author of the story and cousin to Daisy, Nick Caraway, played by Tobey Maguire. As a Yale man who would like to be a writer but has been drawn to the boom of Wall Street and the sale of bonds, Maguire presents the naïve and insecure Caraway in a way that allows us to accept his willingness to be guided if not manipulated by others.
Having fallen in love with Daisy while a young officer going off to war, Gatsby is unable to come home to her for reasons that become known only later in the tale. But Daisy does not wait for him. She marries one of the wealthiest men in the world, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who loves her but is also a reckless womanizer, which leaves Daisy lonely and miserable. It is the vulnerability of Daisy’s misery that opens the door for Gatsby to be reintroduced into her life and she responds to his adoration “like a flower in bloom”.
Though most viewers know the novel by Fitzgerald, we won’t explain more of the tale except to note that as in all worthy tales of true life, good and evil are not drawn in simple categories. The depth of love that Gatsby has for Daisy is balanced by the criminal means by which he gains his wealth. The generous lifestyle provided to Daisy by her husband Tom is countered by his blatant infidelity. Even the malleable moral values of Caraway weave together a willingness to facilitate adultery while praising the purity of love Gatsby has for his beloved, as well as characterizing him as a “man of hope, perhaps the only one he has ever known”.
When Fitzgerald noted that morals were loosened as wealth increased, he gave us all insight into the effects that excesses have on those who experience them. That Daisy simply wanted Gatsby’s love was the reality he did not understand nor did she recognize her own inability to be satisfied with that as well. Full of the paradoxical nature of human experience, Gatsby is as tragic as he is great, which defines us all if we do not have a solid foundation of faith and morality to ground us and serve as a ballast to wealth or temptations that may come our way.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. It is impossible to know with whom we will fall in love. What allows such an experience to bring joy is when we engage in it within a moral relationship, being faithful and committed to one another as we work through difficulties. How have you protected love in your relationships?
2. The manipulation that occurs at the end of the film by Tom allows him to keep Daisy and remove all threats to their marriage. Do you believe he then changed and became a faithful husband to her? Why or why not? How will this shifty turn of events undermine their marriage?
3. The sanatorium in which Nick was placed for his alcohol addiction was named Perkins, who was Fitzgerald’s editor. As Nick told the story of Gatsby to his doctor, we were then able to understand Nick’s deeper experiences and thoughts. Do you find this cinematic technique effective or distracting? Why do you answer as you do?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.