The Great Gatsby: Vacancy Cloaked in a 90s Music Video

gatsby cover image

Ladies and gentlemen, put our hands together for the astonishing…

What do you get when a director with a penchant for razzle-dazzle theatrics decides to adapt one of the most sparsely worded yet beloved and quintessentially classic American novels of our time?


Gatsby party girls

Gatsby is a film that, much like Baz Luhrmann’s other work, you will either love or hate.  And to be honest, I was headed towards the latter during opening weekend as I sat, 3-D glasses set upon my nose, Sour Patch kids perched in my lap, waiting eagerly for the movie to really begin.


If Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation attempted to be true to the ennui of the story — the rich lolling about in their mansions in white sipping drinks, having affairs, and gossipping — then Luhrmann bravely decided to put the “roar” in the roaring twenties by bringing 1920s New York City to 2013 New York City.  And not much has changed.

Here’s a summary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel for the two people who haven’t read it from The Daily Beast:

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is a struggling bond trader who rents a summer cottage next to the mysterious mega-rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the Long Island coast. The enigmatic Gatsby throws over-the-top weekly parties, which we later learn are to attract the attention of Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan)—a socialite Gatsby is hopelessly in love with. Unfortunately for him, Daisy is married to the brutish Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a classist, racist old-money scoundrel who cheats on her with the working class Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher). Gatsby, with the help of Carraway, attempts to rekindle his romance with Daisy.

Luhrmann pulls out all the stops with this movie: there’s barely a scene that doesn’t contain an over-abundance of perfectly coiffed almost other-worldly looking men and women, blazingly fast cars, and pumping music.

Gatsby New York City

Everything is fast – the way the characters move, the scene changes — even the colors seem brighter than the human eye can take, especially in 3-D!  We are in a frenzied environment from the get-go, and Tobey Maguire, although much more mature and a bit more masculine, is like a tiny lost mouse in this sea of endless movement and inertia.   He is, after all, the outsider to this insipid cooperative — the scribe, the compulsory witness for this charade of poor behavior.  After two hours and forty-minutes, I understood Luhrmann’s tactic for telling Gatsby’s story, and it is not an unusual technique: the pomp and circumstance distracts from the fact that, at it’s core, Gatsby seems a story of emptiness rather than satiation — for all the lavish parties, sparkling dresses, bottles of champagne, beautiful suits, and attractive people cannot quench the characters’ thirst for something.  Something else.

The Good:

DiCaprio Maguire Gatsby

Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Bromance:  The affection that these two real-life BFFs have for each other comes across on-screen.  It’s nice to see that they have both steered fairly straight courses despite being part of the dreadfully coined Pussy Posse back in the 90s.  God, I don’t even like typing that phrase.  Both actors shine in their roles and in some ways, it seems that Maguire and DiCaprio are Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby — Nick being a sensible and grounding force for Gatsby, his inconceivably handsome and polished counterpart whose facade just barely hides a constant undercurrent of apprehension.

Tobey Maguire Gatsby

Something that Maguire brings to the role of Nick is his characters genuine fondness for Gatsby — not merely an interest or a curiosity, but a true attachment.  Two Gatsby/Nick moments stood out most to me — the first when Gatsby asks Nick the favor of a lifetime and the event on which the entire novel pivots — to invite Daisy to his cottage the two can reunite after all these years.  Gatsby insists on basically renovating Nick’s humble cottage by enlisting landscapers, cleaners, caterers, and florists.  Have I mentioned the flowers?

Gatsby flowers Dicaprio

Luhrmann completely nailed this scene.

Nick of course obliges and allows Gatsby to tear up his property in preparation for this simple “tea” that he has arranged so that Gatsby can see Daisy.  When the day arrives and the two wait in silence for Daisy to arrive, you could literally cut the tension in the room with a knife — Gatsby in his perfectly tailored and fitted white suit, hair parted and glossed with just the right amount of product to make it gleam (and let’s not forget the little curl in the front — it’s enough to make a girl cry).  He is so nervous, I started to develop an ulcer in my stomach just by watching him (not to mention the acidity already there from my box of Sour Patch Kids).  As the two wait in complete silence, the clock on the mantle ticking the seconds away like a heartbeat, Gatsby asks Nick almost frantically, “Have you got everything you need?”  Nick doesn’t miss a beat before he replies in what seems to be a way to lighten the mood,

 “Perhaps more flowers?”

You actually feel sorry for Gatsby in this scene, as he sits among his pastries, cakes, and flowers — he is like a little boy waiting for his birthday party to start — one who is afraid no one will come.  Throughout this entire sequence, where Gatsby is completely wound up in knots, you get the sense the Nick has his back — encouraging him when Gatsby insists that Daisy isn’t coming when she arrives one minute after their set time; making himself scarce as he sees Gatsby and Daisy becoming more comfortable with each other.  There’s a sweetness to Nick as he plays the part of Gatsby’s wingman — we get the sense that he really is in his corner and wants the best for him.  You could almost see this scenario being played out outside the film — with the two actors arranging this type of charade (on a much smaller scale) in real life.  I think the reason why the scene worked so well is that DiCaprio and Maguire feel so comfortable with each other, and it comes across on screen.

Gatsby Maguire DiCaprio

The scene that really got me, though, was towards the end of the film, when Maguire delivers one of Nick’s most well-known lines. After sitting through over two hours of melodrama — Tom cheating on Daisy and having an abusive affair with Myrtle, Daisy cheating on Tom with Gatsby yet not leaving Tom for Gatsby, Jordan being a cold fish to Nick — I, for one, was sick of all of them.  I wanted to tell them to go and get jobs and stop messing everything up.  Nick essentially does feel this way when he says to Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”  It’s not clear whether Nick speaks of his immediate company (Daisy, Tom, Jordan) or if he’s speaking on a larger societal scale.  It’s left up to us to guess, like most of the novel, but the line is delivered so well that you are, at that moment, Nick himself, experiencing this vapid thrill ride and wanting to disembark.  Gatsby, of course, replies with silence, as is described in the novel:

 I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.

This is where Leo shines, as only he can deliver a smile like this — one that is as much about giving as it is receiving.  It might be the only moment in the film when he looks completely relaxed and at ease.  It’s also heartbreaking, as I would think most of us watching know that Gatsby will soon meet his tragic end.

Speaking of which, the scene that this film really brought to life for me — more than when I read it in paper –was Gatsby’s funeral scene.  I never understood how sad this was, that this man who opened his home to the entire city every night laid in his casket for days, looking as handsome as he did while he was living, without a single person to pay their respects.  It’s enough to make you squirm and think of how much, as a society, we have become merely users — we take without any reciprocity.

Gatsby Daisy

Leonardo DiCaprio the Unsexy: I’m sure everyone who knows me and who follows this blog will cry out in uproar at this statement, but I mean this as an enormous compliment to Leo’s acting ability.  As I sat in the theater watching this film unfold, I kept thinking to myself, “why isn’t he hot?”  I mean, of course he’s hot, he’s a beautiful man, but his usual Leo charisma wasn’t spread on so thick, at least in my opinion.  Even during his more intimate scenes with Daisy, as he lures her away from his party to the beautifully lit garden when they finally kiss, or when they end up in bed together — it’s like it’s all there, but at the same time, it’s not.  Normally, watching those scenes, I would revert back to being thirteen years old with my face red, looking around self consciously to see if I was the only one who was completely flustered.  But this time, I wasn’t.

Gatsby Love Scene

It took me awhile to figure out why.  I finally realized, more than ten years after reading the novel for the first time, that Gatsby is a chaste character.  Yes, he’s got this overwhelmingly unhealthy yet romantic desire to reunite with Daisy — he’s manufactured his entire life and existance just to be near her.  That’s overwhelmingly erotic on paper, but it comes across as being off-putting on screen.  I honestly couldn’t believe that Leo, in his prime, was able to tone it down enough to portray this, instead of going all out as the sex bomb that he really is.  I’m sure that others will argue that he overacts and that his introduction — “I’m Gatsby!” is a bit over-the-top (and looks surprisingly like his character’s intro in Django Unchained!), but I have to disagree.  Watching him, you understand a little bit why Daisy isn’t necessarily ready to drop everything and run away with him.  There is something about Leo’s interpretation of this character that’s a little bit, cold, even in his hottest moments, and it’s because he is distracted and always wants more.

Joel Edgarton

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan: Talk about spot-on casting.  I’ve always had trouble picturing Tom Buchanan in my mind.  I knew he was strong, strict, and hard-tempered, but I never had a clear picture of what his physical manifestation would be.  Joel Edgerton was pure perfection.  Having seen him recently in Zero Dark Thirty, I had in my mind the large and imposing physical presence that he could conjure.  In this role, however, he also displays Tom’s handsomeness, something that’s hard to imagine as you’re reading the text and struck by his vile actions.  Edgerton’s Tom isn’t a fat, hairy, mutant beast a la Paul Giamatti in The Nanny Diaries.  He is a bit like Billy Zane in Titanic — an asshole, sure, but you could also see why he would fall into the “he’s not that bad” category if you were choosing between a rich husband and a lifetime of spinsterhood and disdain from your entire family.

gatsby party scene

Soundtrack: From hip-hop to haunting melodies, the soundtrack to this film is awesome.  I don’t like it nearly as much as I do the soundtrack and score to Romeo and Juliet, but I’m not sure anything can surpass that in my book.  To me, the standouts are Jay Z’s “$100 Bill”, Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful,” Fergie’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody,” and Jack White’s “Love is Blindness.” I know that a lot of critics hated the anachronistic technique of choosing contemporary music for a period piece, but I think this works for a number of reasons.  Mostly because it makes the story instantly accessible to a younger audience.  If we watched Leo and Daisy sit around listening to Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” the film would lose its edginess.  Each song represents the overarching themes of excess, the Prohibition, unrequited love, and pain that run throughout the film.  The money scene is of course, Gatsby’s Roman orgy/speakeasy party scene set to “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” (also an amazing spin song!) which is, of course, the most significantly false statement of the film, followed by Jay Z’s “100 Bill” being played in the speakeasy.  And how much did I love hearing Jay Z’s “Izzo” blasting out of a 1920s convertible as Gatsby zoomed by in his Rolls Royce?  Classic.

Gatsby costumes

Costumes: I was so thankful that every single female character wasn’t dressed in a flapper dress with a headband.  I’m not sure why, but when people overdo the 1920s by creating caricatures out of every single cast member’s costume, it drives me nuts.  Daisy’s dresses were light and airy and ethereal, much like her character.  Jordan (who reminded me a bit of Emily Blunt) looked masculine in a Katharine Hepburn sort of way — attractive enough so that you could understand Nick’s attraction to her, but still cold enough to see why they weren’t a great match.   Gatsby’s suits, though, took the cake.  His white suit was pure perfection – not a crooked seam, an un-ironed collar, or an ill-fitting hem about it.  Leo should have himself cryogenically frozen in that suit.  And ship himself to me.  Oh, wait…

The Bad:

Gatsby book and movie

The Sanitarium Frame Story: I’m not a purist with The Great Gatsby as many viewers and critics of this film are, so the manipulation of certain aspects didn’t bother me at all, ie: the music, the showmanship, etc.  However, to me, having Nick narrate his account of the Gatsby story from a sanitarium cheapened the story and actually took away most of his credibility.  The clincher?  We learn that Nick’s diagnosis is that he is “morbidly alcoholic.”  Okay, I’m no time traveler, but have you read any other books from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era?  If they weren’t smoking or drinking, they weren’t breathing!  And actually, throughout the book and film, Nick doesn’t come across as a heavy drinker to me (didn’t he say he’d only been drunkn twice in his life?), so this pseudo-psychoanalysis seemed a little tacked on.

Nick’s doctor suggests that he documents the events of the summer leading up to his being institutionalized (if that’s even the word for what has happened to him – ‘taking a long rest?’) as a therapeutic measure.  We actually see Nick, dissheleved, pen in hand, feverishly completing his book, titling it at first “Gatsby” before adding (after a quick dramatic pause) “The Great” to it.

I questioned how they were going to handle the end of the film, who would speak those beautiful last lines that have been quoted and re-quoted so many hundreds of times.  I think that Luhrmann’s decision to have Nick literally write the story before our eyes allows us to see those last lines as Nick writes and speaks them — they appear before us and pass across the screen just as he utters them.  I found that this gave me a bit of nostalgia, as the audience feels like we are reading and hearing these lines for the very first time.  Having both read the book and listened to the audio version, I have to say that seeing those lines on paper is much more gratifying than hearing them, and I’m not exactly sure why.

The Toss-Up:

Carey Mulligan Daisy

Carey Mulligan as Daisy:  I know that she beat out half of Hollywood’s actresses to play this role, but I just wasn’t really feeling her.  To be fair, though, I’m not sure how much my dissatisfaction was attributed to her interpretation of Daisy, or the character of Daisy herself.  Daisy has always seemed like such an ethereal being to me — almost as if she doesn’t exist.  Or, if she does, she morphs and becomes whatever she needs to be depending on her surroundings — like  a chameleon… or a borderline.  Carey Mulligan acts the part well, but I almost wish she’d given Daisy something, a bit of personality — anything so that we can feel for this character and understand why Gatsby is so infatuated by her.

But the lack thereof is exactly the point. 

Gatsby Daisy dock

After all, the failure of the American Dream isn’t exactly a subtle theme in Fitzgerald’s novel.  Maybe Gatsby’s unhealthy obsessed with Daisy — his desire to stop the progression of time in order to relive a moment in his past — and the fact that she is merely a vacant shell, reiterates this.  Daisy’s… emptiness and quite frankly, her flat affect show that Gatsby isn’t infatuated with her — it’s the wanting of her that’s more important to him than actually being with her.  This is what I meant earlier when I mentioned Gatbsy’s coldness — even when he is with Daisy, when they are in bed together, it’s still not enough for him — he wants all of her, all the time.  I think Carey Mulligan delivered the line that was the straw that broke the camel at Gatsby’s party’s back — “You want too much!”  We can’t cling forever to something that is no longer a truth.  We can’t pretend to be someone we are not, no matter how much confetti and champagne we toss around.

Verdict?  I would say a solid 8/10.  The film definitely made me re-examine the book (and if you haven’t already, I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version!)  I think that Luhrmann has succeeded in making a classic work more accessible to a contemporary audience, and he has gathered a lot of talent in order to do so.  Go see this movie!

Categories: Reviews

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3 replies

  1. This review was a great read. I appreciate the time and energy you spent on this post.

    I recall reading the Gatsby book, or should I say, struggling to read the book, long ago. I was much more interested in thriller book like the Bourne novels, or epic novels like Taipan, or Shogun by Clavell. or even the McCoullough novel, The Thorn Birds.

    The Fitzgerald book left me cold. Maybe it was my failure to not recognize that the beauty of the novel was in the words and the style rather than the strict narrative. I also saw the Redford/Farrow film and loved the colors and not much else.

    But Lurhman’s version really brought the book alive for me.


  2. The Redford/Farrow film was a dead fish in my opinion. Did absolutely nothing for me.

    It’s interesting because hearing the book read aloud did not have the same affect on my as did reading the words on the page. There is such a lucid quality to Fitzgerald’s text that unless you appreciate the symbolism, the book seems almost pedestrian.

  3. I just got to see this film last week and wanted to mention that I LOVED it. It was everything I wanted it to be, and you’re right, the soundtrack was brilliant (even Lana del Rey, whom I do NOT enjoy as a general rule was perfect for it). For me the over-the-topness of the visuals was perfect for Fitzgerald’s style of writing, whose drama lies partly in his depiction of the scene. Grande, dirty, melodic… every bit was point on. Thanks for your article, I did not see the parallels to modern day until now, and that makes me want to re-watch it with this new-found knowledge.

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