Baz Luhrmann drags ‘Gatsby’ into the Jazz Age and beyond

Do you love grand spectacle, color and great style. That’s what Baz Luhrmann brings to the movies, and I looked forward to the opening of his “The Great Gatsby.” I love the styles, the music and  the fashion of that time period. Luhrmann gives it to us in vibrant excess as the art deco meets Hollywood CGI.

The movie features terrific performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular character and Tobey Maguire as the narrator. Maguire’s character is still a witness to the horrors of callousness and immorality polished by good manners and lots of money but on more levels than just white trash versus white upper class.

Luhrmann quickly establishes Nick Carraway (Maguire) as an unreliable narrator. He’s in an institution, diagnosed as being “morbidly alcoholic” with “fits of rage” among other things. His doctor, Walter Perkins (Jack Thompson), suggests that he write. In the actual novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald suggests has Nick remembering the distant past. Both this movie and the 1974 Robert Redford version as well set us up with a much wiser Nick recalling:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

In Luhrmann’s movie, Nick’s unreliability is underlined in several ways–he writes he has only been drunk twice, although we see that in his writing he originally said once. We later see this isn’t true and knowing that he’s an alcoholic, we know that he’s been drunk enough for other people to notice in a public way. He’s not a quiet drunk; he’s not a full-functioning alcoholic who can hide his drinking.

The main story is the same in Luhrmann’s version as with the novel and the Robert Redford vehicle. In Long Island in 1922, Nick is based in a small cottage next to an almost impossibly large mansion owned by a mysterious man called Gatsby. Nick’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan) lives across the water, and at night Nick and later Gatsby can see the green light at the end of the pier on Daisy’s estate. Daisy is married to old money in a polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).

Nick is invited to Daisy’s estate, where we first see Daisy only as a bejeweled hand floating up from the other side of a couch with white transparent curtains blowing in the wind around it like veils or great shrouds. Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) is also there, dressed and made up beautifully and lounging on a couch.

At dinner, Tom spouts racist views, asking about a particular book, “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” while surrounded by black servants.  That’s a cringe-worthy moment. Then the phone rings. Baker lets Nick in on a barely kept secret: Tom has a mistress who calls at dinnertime.

Tom quickly involves Nick in this intrigue by taking him to New York where Tom passes a message to his flamboyant mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher),  at the local gas station in the Valley of Ashes. Tom tells her to meet him at their love nest in New York City. Myrtle is married to George (Jason Clarke) who runs the gas station and George has been promised an old car by Tom. George is a dirty, greasy  lunk of a man. Myrtle is a loud, brassy woman with gaudy tastes. Tom probably could have called Myrtle, but how much more fun it must be to ask your mistress out when her husband’s in the other room. That’s the kind of man Tom is.

Myrtle and Tom’s love nest has red wallpaper and is in a neighborhood where African Americans live in neighboring buildings. Nick waits in the living room as the couple make loud and lustful afternoon delight. That’s soon followed by the influx of friends. Myrtle and Tom’s party is drunken and violent with probably lots of embarrassing incidents if one could remember, but Nick doesn’t even know how he returns home.

In due time, Gatsby invites Nick to one of his parties and Gatsby, or Luhrmann, knows how to throw a party (Please send me an invitation next time, Baz). Here, Luhrmann puts the jazz and Jay-Z into the Jazz Age. In the 1974 movie, perhaps the most daring thing at the Gatsby party was two ladies dancing together and a bit of tango. Luhrmann has entertainers, both black and white. Men and women are drunk beyond elegance and slumping into slatternly sloppiness. Contrast that to Tom’s party as a post-coital relaxation. Jay Gatsby’s parties are his grand foreplay because wealth and glamour excite Daisy whereas his poverty frightened her away.

This Gatsby, DiCaprio’s Gatsby, has various mental issues that we’re not sure Nick recognizes. Today, we might call Gatsby a stalker. He’s been obsessing about Daisy since the moment he kissed her in Louisville when his poverty was disguised by his uniform. He loves her when they had little in common except they were two beautiful people.  His obsession with Daisy prevents him from seeing her as a woman, a shallow woman without courage or morals. His insistence on re-writing history indicates a brittle rigidity that Daisy can easily shatter.

Gatsby has ambition and has taken opportunity, but all with one very romantic aim–to have Daisy as a wife. With his illegally gained fortune, Gatsby rubs shoulders with the politicians, singers and actors. He’s on both sides of the color line, taking Nick to a club where African American dancers and singers entertain because where else did jazz come from?

In the 1974 film, Tom Buchanan racist comments mark him as man to be held in contempt (since both Gatsby and Tom commit adultery). In the book, Scott has Tom say, “Civilization’s going to pieces. I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things… The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be–will be utterly submerged… It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.” In the 1974 movie, we don’t see that many black people except for the witnesses to Myrtle’s fatal accident.  They are good credible people and the police seem to treat them with respect. Is this what Tom was worried about? Bruce Dern’s Tom doesn’t show it.

Luhrmann gives something for Tom to worry about: a white chauffeur driving rich black people in a fine car. Black entertainers in the shady club. Black people living near his illicit love nest. He’s in a neighborhood where his social set won’t see him, but also where there might be some mixing between blacks and whites.

There’s been a quibble over the casting of Amitabh Bachchan as the Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim. The 70-year-old Asian Indian Bachchan is part Hindi and part Sikh. I’m not sure what the problem is. Do people believe that he can’t pass as Jewish? There are Jews in India–five native Jewish communities and others arrived during various migrations. Does he look Jewish to you?

In the 1974 Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version, Howard Da Silva played Meyer Wolfsheim. Howard Da Silva was born Silverblatt, the son of Russian Yiddish-speaking Jews who was born in Cleveland, Ohio and changed his name to the Portuguese-sounding Da Silva. Was it to seem less Jewish? There are Jewish people who could pass for white. Think of a young Kirk Douglas. Bachchan’s Wolfsheim has a swarthy complexion and puts him distinctly on the other side of the color line drawn here. Nick and Gatsby could cross, they could pass into the social set of Nick and Daisy if they watch their language and have the right clothes, but as Tom says, there’s something in the blood that defines them that makes the old rich family different. Social Darwinism is dressed up in fine clothes and manners.

Did Scott believe that? Some of his writing would be considered racist by today’s standards. His relationship with his wife, Zelda, who was from a well-to-do family didn’t end well. They had fights, drank too much and, according to one person, needed drama. Scott was also an alcoholic and based Daisy on another rich girl who he didn’t marry. He might not have been bitter, but he like Nick isn’t probably the most reliable narrator.

Luhrmann’s version of Nick as an alcoholic cautions us to consider Scott’s version of the events–from his assessment of Daisy and Tom to his version of Gatsby. In Luhrmann’s version both Clarke’s George and Edgerton’s Tom are bigger men and more physically threatening just as his estate is more castle like (Don’t bother looking for the house that stands in for Jay Gatsby’s estate. The exterior is the college of International College of Management in Sydney, Australia.) than the stately beauty that Redford’s Gatsby live in.  You can complain about Luhrmann’s beating your over the head with some imagery, but the repetition was also present in the Robert Redford version (of the oculist sign) and the image of those eyes linger after you leave the movie.

DiCaprio is both dangerous and pathetically lovelorn. You might shudder when you see him anywhere near the water if you’ve seen “Titanic.” The movie is gaudy and gorgeous.It drags F. Scott Fitzgerald into the real Jazz Age  while adding a modern touch thanks to both CGI and a bit of hip hop.  You won’t see me drinking myself into a black out, but let’s get some fringed dresses and Charleston until the band stops playing.

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