What’s So Great About The New Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is one of the most brazenly literary books ever written. It is not an unambitious novel, and it rejects a naturalism that many writers (like Hemingway) were taking in fascinating new directions. While its famous opening line (“Some years back, never mind how long . . .”) hints at the kind of self-fashioned modesty that Nick Carraway employs as narrator, that’s a kind of false foreshadowing. The real first line is the fake epigraph by the even faker “Thomas Parke D’Invilliers:”

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!’


That is what the novel is about: not a guy being reminded of the values of the middle-west, but a man wearing a certain kind of hat, and a woman falling in love with him because he wears that hat so well.

Therefore, I’m not upset at all that Baz Luhrmann’s new film is brazenly cinematic: prizing spectacle over years of perhaps over-interpretation. If you hate this movie and love the book, then you’re probably overvaluing the book. But the book is itself a performance, a lot of kick-ass sentences that reframe familiar scenarios. I love the book and really enjoyed the movie – it’s not perfect and at times it’s a mess, but its overall aesthetic captures Gatsby better than any other filmed version. Much of this has to do with Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor we’re all probably getting tired of praising.

Robert Redford, the last notable screen Gatsby, was best at playing a guy who didn’t like wearing nice clothes. In one of his more iconic roles, The Sting, he cons his way into a tuxedo and takes it off as soon as he gets a chance. DiCaprio possesses some of this grittiness as well, but Titanic is a telling instance of why he was born to play Gatsby. Yes, he’s believable a sneaky kid who wins seats on the sinking ship in a card game, but when he puts on nice clothes he looks like he was born to wear them. When Fitzgerald imagined Gatsby imagining the “platonic conception of himself,” I have few doubts that he looked like Leo. It works, and Leo suggests both the submerged inner turmoil and commitment to surface that has made Gatsby the go-to archetype for failed American dreamer instead of other, better archetypes. Unlike Redford, DiCaprio sells the “grotesque and fantastic conceits [that] haunted him in his bed at night,” even when he’s calling you old sport and introducing you to famous gangsters. This isn’t the dangerous arrogance of Django Unchained‘s Calvin Candie or the kid president sneaky ingenuity of Catch Me If You Can‘s Frank Abagnale. DiCaprio is playing a tormented and remarkably successful dreamer, and  just because he’s spent quality time with Bar Rafaeli doesn’t mean we should dismiss him as the latest golden child.

I had my doubts about Carey Mulligan going in, but she’s tremendous here. Like Gatsby, unlike Tom and Jordan (who has an “urban distaste for the concrete), Daisy has a weird integrity and a rich, troubled inner life. We’ve seen Tom be one of the biggest assholes in western literature, but Daisy still can’t say she never loved this “hulking” meathead. Why? That’s what makes Daisy interesting, not shallow. Gatsby got part of the narrative wrong. And the predictably grand irony is that despite her surprising complexity, that’s not what Gatsby likes about her. As Jordan says,

The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and  because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since.

When Mulligan has to say, “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts,” I understood why she was crying more than I did in the two times that I taught the book to tenth graders. Mia Farrow made Daisy ridiculous, but Mulligan makes her tragic – a wealthy child chiseled into a frivolous adult who was “popular in Chicago,” haunted by her honesty. I honestly can’t say if this is Fitzgerald’s conception or Baz Luhrmann’s (it certainly isn’t Gatsby’s), but it’s the way I’ll think about Daisy from now on.

The movie isn’t perfect. The rap music never works, not once. The book is obsessed with the music of its period, and I wish the movie were moreso. In a key scene in the book, Gatsby has Klipspringer play the piano (not an organ, as in the movie), and this is what he produces:


Frankly, I wish Baz got T-Bone Burnett or somebody to rethink those ditties, instead of Jay-Z to make up his own. Even George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is anachronistic: Gatsby made his suicide dive in 1922, while Gershwin wrote his opus in 1924; that’s a quibble to end all quibbles, but some will make more of it than me. Also, I do wish they’d played the Myrtle and Tom scene straight. That scene makes Tom look like a fun guy, like a rock star trashing a hotel room. The ’74 version gets it right by making any Tom Buchanan party seem like a total drag in contrast to the fun that people seem to be having at Gatsby’s.

Here’s some dialogue from Tom’s party in the book:

 ‘What was the name of the woman?’ asked Mrs. McKee.

‘Mrs. Eberhardt. She goes around looking at people’s feet in their own homes.’

In the new movie, the worst part about the scene as filmed is that it doesn’t let us get to know Myrtle, which seems like the point of having it.

But I think the overall aesthetic works brilliantly, which is the point that everyone seems to disagree with and is the place where Luhrmann took the most creative chances. The consensus critical sentiment is captured in the fevered old man prose of David Denby: “Luhrmann whips Fitzgerald’s sordid debauch into a saturnalia—garish and violent, with tangled blasts of music, not all of it redolent of the Jazz Age.” But while Denby and others are complaining about having to wear 3-D glasses and that kids don’t watch old musicals any more, I’m willing to celebrate the Luhrmann for taking a chance to turn a beloved text into the cinematic version of what makes it beloved: a spectacle that constantly reminds you it’s a spectacle.