In my first year of university, my iPod disappeared. I’m not sure if it was stolen on the bus, if I lost it (losing stuff is kind of my thing), or if it slipped through a crack in space and time to be found by a 17th-century Puritan who declared it witchcraft and started an uproar over it. But even now, years later, I still find myself looking for it. Every so often, I’ll check my backpack and my purses and sweater pockets to see if I left it inside, even though I didn’t find it last time or the time before.
I could buy a new one, but I never have. I bought that iPod back in high school with my first paycheck from my first job. I liked the way it felt, the way it looked, the way all the settings and buttons were just so. It was perfect. It was mine. I don’t want a new one; I want that one. If I had to tear apart every bag or backpack or sweater I ever owned to find it, I probably would.
And this is about the time you’re wondering, “What on earth does this have to do with The Great Gatsby?”
In the early 1920s, a bright-eyed young writer-turned-bonds broker moves out to Long Island, where he reconnects with his cousin Daisy and makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, his millionaire next-door neighbour. What follows is a summer filled with every indulgence and every kind of depravity: sex, booze, drugs, wild parties, infidelities, all leading up to a tragic accident and a resulting murder-suicide.
The writer, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), begins the movie by describing some of the events we’re about to see. He looks tired and worn-out, as though he’s seen everything dark about the world and can’t find the light. He takes the pain of his memories and channels it into a book, and we go back in time to see him in a lighter, happier time, back when the world was fresh and new and open to him. (Sound familiar at all?)
Maguire does a surprisingly fantastic job as Nick. I don’t think I’ve seen anything he’s done since Spiderman 3, and he’s come a long way since swaggering down the street with an emo haircut. He manages to go from an earnest, eager, intellectual young man who lets himself be used and abused by the rich and powerful to a world-weary alcoholic who has seen and done too much for him to ever have any shot at happiness ever again–and he makes both equally convincing.
The character himself isn’t entirely perfect, though; for one thing, the story is told in first person, but there are a few parts where this falls through. I’m quite certain he wasn’t there when Daisy and Gatsby were having sex, for example (and if he was, I have follow-up questions). I’m also pretty sure that Gatsby wouldn’t have told him any of this, because he doesn’t seem the type of guy to brag about bagging a lady, especially when it’s the woman he’s loved for five years. And he wouldn’t have gotten this info from Daisy, either, since she cut ties after Gatsby’s death.
So the whole sex scene, along with a few other scenes (mainly private stuff between Daisy and Gatsby), is entirely conjecture, but us seeing it means that Nick must have been focusing on it a lot and visualizing what Gatsby looked like without clothes on. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, but this is either a problem with the narrative device or a surprisingly fitting reason for why Nick never got together with Jordan [who is, in fact, a woman].)
Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) is the perfect representation of what women were in the 1920s, with perhaps a touch more intelligence than would have been recommended for someone in her shoes. Yes, I know, she’s a complete doormat who doesn’t particularly care about anyone or anything except having a good time. She doesn’t have the strength of character to stand up to her husband, Tom, and stay with Gatsby, even though she professes to love him. And though she might have been a good person to start with, she grew up to become a selfish, codependent woman who couldn’t handle the world and stayed with a cheating husband to avoid it.
But she’s at least intelligent enough to recognize that women have to play a certain part. Daisy knows full well that Tom is cheating on her, and the knowledge is bringing her nothing but misery. As a result, she knows that a woman’s best chance for a good future is to be a beautiful idiot. And that’s what she hopes for her daughter, a child born from a brief moment of her own happiness and doomed to grow up in an unhappy family: that she will be attractive enough to catch a rich man’s eye, and that she will be dumb enough not to notice when things are going sideways.
I think Mulligan was a fantastic choice to play Daisy. I saw her in both Pride & Prejudice and Doctor Who (she appeared in “Blink,” which incidentally is one of my favourite episodes), and even though she’s quite a good-looking woman, she gives off the impression that there’s a fair amount going on underneath that blonde hair. When she wants to, she can turn that off to become the most vapid and clueless of characters, which has got to be a lot harder than it looks. And she just sort of exudes this presence that makes you want to be near her, which is perfect given that that’s exactly why Daisy is the focus of so much attention by everyone around her.
Now let’s chat about Leonardo DiCaprio. I was completely bowled over by his portrayal of Gatsby. I read the book when I was in high school, as so many people do, and was less than impressed by the story, which dragged on a fair bit and talked too much about the billboard and the green light (I don’t remember a whole lot else about it, to be honest). But when it’s told about DiCaprio’s Gatsby, not just some faceless character, it becomes so much more real and so much more relatable.
Nick talks a lot throughout the film about the hope that Gatsby represents. He had a vision for the future that encompassed him so completely that he pursued it to the exclusion of everything else. Once that vision was just to escape the Midwest and all the misery and poverty he grew up in, but when Gatsby met Daisy, that vision immediately shifted to her. And he recognized that in the moment before he first kissed her, recognized that the entirety of his destiny was about to shift irretrievably. And from that moment on, everything, from telling her the truth about his past to plunging into the criminal underworld to buying an enormous house and throwing parties every weekend on the off-chance she’d wander in, is about getting her.
Even after going through a war, loving and losing the woman of his dreams, and forcing himself through the motions of being the perfect host and throwing the perfect parties, even though all of it is empty if she isn’t there, Gatsby never loses his sense of perfect optimism about the future. Even when Daisy learns the truth about his money, even when she accidentally kills Tom’s mistress, even when Gatsby takes the fall to cover up for her, he never loses his faith that they’ll be together.
Some people—including me, really, but I’m a cynic—might call that blindness or optimism to the point of naiveté. But the others, the romantics at heart, call that love. And with love comes hope. So it was kind of overwhelming, in the best sense, to see that despite everything he’s been through, Gatsby never loses his sense of hope. Of all the characters, even including poor corrupted Nick, Gatsby really is worth the whole rotten lot of them.
Something you may or may not already know about me is that I’m a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann. Even if I hadn’t known that he was the director of The Great Gatsby, I would’ve cottoned on right away after seeing the way so many different elements were combined: a combination of music from the times and modern hip-hop, certain tricks of the camera, specific plot points, the gorgeous settings and costumes, even just the way the opening sequence began in black-and-white and transitioned into glorious colour.
Not only are these things immediately apparent as Baz trademarks, but they also closely follow certain parts of Moulin Rouge!. I mentioned the Nick/Christian parallel above, but there are other things, too: love and loss, foreshadowed tragedy and death, a jealous “other man” who the woman is supposed to be with but doesn’t love, the narrator guiding the story along with flash-forwards to the present and his attempts to get the story down on paper…
But there’s one big difference: where Moulin Rouge! was a story about love, this was a story about hope and all the things, both good and bad, that come along with it. There was once a very wise man who said, “Every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
Through Gatsby’s life and his death, Nick comes to understand a few things about the world. He sees the worst of humanity and the horrible things they can do to each other. And even after all that, when he compares the worst of it all to the best of Gatsby, even taking into account the things about Gatsby that aren’t as nice as he might like, Nick realizes that he can keep on living. And I think that’s a pretty great message.
“So what does that have to do with your iPod?” you’re still asking.
For one thing, that’s my narrative device. You might have noticed that by now if you’re read any of my other pieces. Like Baz and his writer-narrators, I like to frame my reviews with personal anecdotes and relevant stories. I do that so you can get a sense of who I am and what I’m like, because when you know me, you might understand why and how I have the opinions I do.
For another thing, it’s because I still hold out hope, even now, years after I’ve lost it, that I’ll find something that was once important to me. It may not be as important as a blonde lady who looks great in short dresses, but even if I lost everything today and had to start over, I’m sure I would still hold out hope of finding it someday amongst all my new things. I know that doesn’t make sense, but when you want something badly enough, you have to disregard logic and reason and everything the world tries to tell you. And if you never stop, never give in, never give up, nobody’s ever going to be able to keep you from getting exactly what you want.
Because hope’s worth nothing if you don’t do something about it. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go through my bags again.
Final Grade: A
- Holy crap, Callan McAuliffe totally looks like a young Leo.
- I’m not sure how well I like the floating words and letters. It feels like they’re forcing emphasis on certain lines, particularly the last line. If the narrator can’t create enough emphasis just with their voice, they’re not doing a good enough job.
- My mom and I saw this together, and we were actually talking at the end about how things like this must go. Baz is married to the costume/set designer, so they’re probably having Sunday brunch when Baz is like, “Catherine, darling, what if we did an adaptation of The Great Gatsby?” And Catherine is like, “Yes, dear, that would be wonderful.” And Baz is like, “No, but seriously, what if we did this.” And they sketch it all out on cocktail napkins, and that Monday they call up all their friends and say, “We’ve had an idea. Let’s make a movie.”
- It was crazy sweet seeing Gatsby freaking out over the state of Nick’s garden and getting everything ready for Daisy coming over. Only a man who’s hopelessly in love would go to such lengths for the dramatic “I’m rich and I still love you” reveal.
- I actually kind of love that it was Daisy who was responsible for the hit-and-run. Without even knowing it (and I think she’s probably too stupid to pull it off intentionally), she avenged herself to her husband for his affair. She gave him more pain than he had ever given her. Nice going, Daisy.
- I love that Gatsby was wandering around his own party as a waiter. That’s such an eccentric millionaire thing to do.
- You need to see this thing right now. That is all.