Baz Luhrmann does justice to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most intriguing creation: Jay Gatsby, the man referred to in the book title as “The Great.” As far as adaptations go, Luhrmann’s version beats the 1974 version that starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow hands down. That was a sorrowful, soulful tale of love and youth and whatnot, but this new Gatsby redux wastes no time in penetrating the very core and essence of what “Gatsby” was really about: conspicuous consumption.
There’s no doubt Fitzgerald was a raging romantic, but he was at his most romantic about money. In the book, Gatsby throws money around like confetti on the last day of the World Series, and Luhrmann’s movie follows suit: The glamor of Gatsby (played with a kind of studied desperation by Leonardo DiCaprio) equals the glamor of his apparently massive wealth, and subsequently the glamor of his obsession, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Incidentally, Daisy is filthy rich from birth.
In one key scene, Daisy visits Gatsby at his impossibly huge Long Island mansion and he throws open a closet to show her his shirt collection. In a brilliantly executed CGI sequence, Gatsby tosses shirt after starched shirt from the landing of a long and winding staircase: a cascade of tailored shirts, each a splash of lovely color, swoop and swirl around Daisy. And just like in the book, she weeps and makes that famous comment about “so many beautiful shirts!”
This is the moment that cements their reunion. After years of Gatsby’s absence, during which Daisy was convinced that her ex-lover had died in the war, and after he had made his fortune and lured her to his place by throwing the most spectacular and expensive parties night after night, Gatsby finally has Daisy where he wants her: awed and turned on by his show of wealth.
Mulligan’s Daisy is probably less calculating than Fitzgerald meant her to be, but as a gorgeous, over-privileged airhead who can’t function without a mint julep cocktail clutched in a many-ringed hand, she works a charm. Even her voice, which Fitzgerald originally described as having the “sound of money,” is spot on: The beguiling softness of it only just masks the reality of a woman who has spent her entire life loving only herself. Not that Fitzgerald was critical of Daisy: She was his ideal. And certainly Gatsby is ready to give his life for her, if that impresses her over buying a Rolls and an array of sable coats.
Fitzgerald was in thrall of women of riches (inherited, not earned) all his life: His wife Zelda was well bred and had money of her own, but she was a talented neurotic with her own literary career too. That didn’t go over very well with Fitzgerald; in his heart, he needed women to be like Daisy: dumb, desirable and endlessly susceptible to money. Luhrmann deploys Fitzgerald’s longing to maximum effect and lets rip with the big spending spree. From start to finish, “Gatsby” comes off like a shrine for cash and all its trappings: breathtaking clothes, incredibly staged parties, processions of servants. To our eyes, so used now to austerity, it’s glorious with stupid extravagance.
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