Great Gatsby” is more style than substance. That said, it’s also the
point of the classic novel, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which has been rendered
into a film for the 5th time now (also in 1926, 1949, 1974, & 2000).
It’s obviously a subject that fascinates each new generation: what’s
behind all the celebrity glitz and glitter?
Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) arrives in New York City in
the midst of the Roaring 20’s: the stock market is booming (he’s a
broker for a big firm), the nightlife is teeming, the post-War victory
euphoria is lingering (though the bitter seeds of disaster have been planted
in Europe, but we’re paying no attention to that right now).
Prohibition has actually created opportunity for risk-taking entrepreneurs,
and also spawned a naughty underground party atmosphere, where otherwise
humdrum citizens could play the jaunty outlaw and feel wildly adventurous.
At the same time, they were all trying to ignore the burgeoning influence of
the menacing Mob.
The quiet, unassuming Carraway manages to find a little servant’s
bungalow on Long Island, which is next door to a gorgeous mansion that lights
up at night with wild parties. When Carraway receives a personal
invitation to attend a party, it turns out that the mansion is owned by Jay
Gatsby, a debonair man-about-town who is so mysterious that many of the
drop-in guests have never even met him, and some even doubt he exists.
Carraway is both compelled and repelled by all the frivolity and reckless
abandon: fireworks over the water, guests jumping into pools fully
clothed, dancing the Charlestown to a live jazz band. (A criticism here:
who thought it was a good idea to introduce rap music to the 1920’s?)
Meanwhile, Carraway has looked up his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey
Mulligan), who seems to be stuck in a loveless marriage to a rich philandering
socialite, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who immediately takes a liking to the
pliable Carraway and invites him to party with him and his mistress and her
(married) friend, just so the naďve, wide-eyed Carraway can quickly become as
thoroughly corrupt as the rest of them.
Carraway soon discovers that there is plenty of back story simmering
behind all this boozy indulgence. Daisy and Jay had met each other
before the War, when they were both very young, and though they both enjoyed a
torrid romance, he went off to the trenches and she went off to boarding
school. And though they exchanged some lovelorn letters, it wasn’t
going to happen. He was a poor boy from North Dakota dirt farmers, and
she was high society; it’s just that his dashing officer’s uniform
temporarily blurred the intractable social distinction. Not
surprisingly, while he is away, she eventually marries someone of similar
social standing. He returns determined to impress her with his nouveau
riche lifestyle, conveniently leaving out the part where he is beholden to the
It turns out that Daisy, while a breathtakingly beautiful little waif,
is perfectly soulless, and maddeningly gutless. Carraway, trying to
please everybody, winds up being driven crazy by others’ conflicting
expectations, and with no strong sense of self-identity, buffeted about by
every whim of circumstance (nice-guy preachers, take note). As for The
Great Gatsby, well, his nature was corruptible, but he had an incorruptible
ideal to which he steadfastly adhered, which made him either a noble failure
or an enigmatic idealist, depending on your point of view.
All of this is told in retrospect, by an older-but-wiser Carraway,
reminiscing from his point of view as keen observer of a calloused company.
Are we enchanted and enthralled? Not exactly. But we, too, are
simultaneously compelled and repelled by the ostentatious excess as thin
disguise for lascivious larceny, overlaid with unrequited ardor. King
Solomon, where art Thou?
Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas