The 1920s is having a moment. The decadence, the opulence, the sheer extravagance seem to make its way onto the big and small screen time and again and pervade so many aspects of our popular culture today. It’s no surprise, however, that this should be the case. Both now and then have many similarities. In a time of great economic instability – then, right before major economic upheaval and us right after – the wealthy seem to be getting richer and the poor seem to be pushed into deeper economic despair. Music and fashion are pushing cultural boundaries. Social and political unrest are prevalent and a growing distrust of the government is blooming. It is no wonder than in both of these times another constant is that people are looking for some kind of relief and outlet for their woes.
Directed by Baz Luhrmann, The Great Gatsby is a retelling of an old story – both because we’ve all read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book at least once and because the themes of lost loves, lavish excess, star crossed lovers, cheating lovers, outsiders, insiders, rich and poor have all been covered throughout the history of literature and film. In his film, Luhrmann puts his own unique auteur stamp on it. Through his whimsical and often chaotic aesthetic style and a true understanding of the medium in which he works, he layers together his special brand of filmmaking. The bright and vibrant colors, quick cuts, and close up shots are all signature Luhrmann. He magnificently recreates the world of the narrative and brings a new and exciting vibrancy to 1920s New York.
Gatsby takes place in 1922, right at the height of stock market boom, before it all came crashing down. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is our narrator, the outsider to the world in which he takes us, the viewers. His cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is married to an old Yale buddy of his, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) out on Long Island. Across the Bay is the famed yet mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is in love with Daisy and throws extravagant parties for whomever wishes to join yet remains allusive to all of his guests.
In Luhrmann’s brilliant twist of fate, he gives Nick the voice of Fitzgerald as the literary voice behind the narrative. After graduating from Yale, where he had hoped to become the next great American writer, Nick abandons that dream to become a stock broker and make money. His summer takes a turn for the strange when he meet’s Jay Gatsby at one of his lavish parties. Immediately he is sucked into the drama that comes with someone like Jay. Additionally, he pairs up with his cousin, Daisy and her bombastic and disgustingly rich husband Tom. Nick finds out about Jay’s history with Daisy and suddenly becomes a part of their secret love triangle. It is at his psychiatrist’s behest that he writes down journal entries of what bothers him and yet what he is unable to convey through the spoken word. Those entries become the story of The Great Gatsby. It is Luhrmann’s tribute to Fitzgerald for maintaining his objective view while living in and observing the world he so delicately wrote about.
Gatsby rehashes the age old trope that money cannot buy happiness. For all of the characters, there is a constant to feel full – full of money, full of friends. The more you have, or pretend to have, is how you can prove your worth in this world. This was the case in the 1920s and this is again the case now. People believe that the more things they have the better they seem and the more people will like them. For Gatsby he thought that providing people with lavish parties full of free alcohol and entertainment made him loved. As it turned out, all of those were empty gestures. When he died, none of those takers were there to give back to him and pay their respects. He was surrounded by photographers and the press who ogled in the spectacle that was Jay Gatsby. The only one who was around for him and who really cared was Nick. Not coincidentally, he was also the one person who refused to take anything from him. The one person who just wanted his company and his friendship.
Ultimately the lives that our characters live become a race to see who can become the one to die with the most toys – and for what? No one, not one person in the whole story has a meaningful relationship. Nick thought he had one with Gatsby, but in truth, we don’t actually see a true friendship blossom. Nick only finds out about who Jay Gatsby was at the end of the film and right before Gatsby dies. Perhaps they were on their way to a great friendship, but that opportunity was snuffed out. Daisy and Gatsby – the great star crossed lovers whose fate was never realized – also did not have any evidence of a real relationship outside lust at first side and raw sexual desire. Five years before our story begins they met at a party and were instantly attracted to one another. He was in love with her yet when she heard he was penniless she found someone who could provide her with the riches she (and her social status) so desired. Tom and Daisy, while they are married and have a child together are another dysfunctional pair as he has a wandering eye and hops into bed with any woman he finds beautiful. He somehow seems to think it’s a redeeming quality of his that he always comes back to Daisy.
The story, mostly told through flashback, is narrated by Nick while psychiatric care after his summer with Gatsby and the Buchannans. This perspective conjured up a comparison to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the idea that the insane are running the asylum. As a culture we value those with money because that status gives them power. They gorge themselves on material wealth and neglect their emotional states for it. It is those who go against that grain and don’t buy into that hype are relegated to the sidelines because they don’t have the same “values” or cash on hand to enjoy the finer things in life. Nick is perfectly happy in his small cottage that he rents for $80 a month. He wants to use his summer to learn a trade – the stock and bonds business. Yet he is sucked into the world that Daisy, Tom and Gatsby inhabit and it ends up driving him crazy.
Nick is the consummate outsider – commenting on and observing other people’s drama. In his voice over narration he laments how he is the keeper of everyone’s secrets which places him both on the inside of their lives and yet always just to the side of it. Initially he so wants to be a part of it, doing all he can to join in. Yet, it is his outsider status that ultimately allows him to maintain his sanity and an objective viewpoint to bring him to the other end of the narrative where no one else was able to.
Maybe it’s not that the early 2000s is so similar to the 1920s, rather that American culture is a constant and that The Great Gatsby has maintained its status throughout the generations since it was written because of its universality. The story recounts struggles that everyone faces in one form or another at some point in life. Since 1776, the American dream has been such that people believe they are always able to pull themselves out of whichever social or economic sphere they were born into and grown into the next one up. Generations of successful Americans have proven that to be a viable option. Yet as The Great Gatsby states, the dichotomy between the Nuevo-riche and the old money people is a constant struggle. The idea that being born into money (as is the conversation in Gastby) or being the “dominant race” or religion, or in today’s cultural climate, the “right sexual preference” somehow gives you a greater stronghold in the world goes directly against the ideal of the American dream yet is alive nonetheless. Gatsby is a story for the ages and never has that been more evident in Luhrmann’s most recent retelling. I have no doubt it will be told again and again for decades to come.