Based on Scott Fitzgerald’s famed novel, The Great Gatsby is narrated in a flashback by Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a Yale graduate and WWI veteran, who writes the story in his therapist’s office many years later.
In the summer of 1922, Nick moves to New York City, hoping to make it big on Wall Street by selling bonds. His cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), lives nearby in the town of East Egg, with her rich, old money husband, Tom. They have a daughter and an unhappy marriage marred with Tom’s various affairs that Daisy is both aware of and hates. He also meets Jordan Baker, a famous golfer and Daisy’s friend.
As Nick gets drawn into their world, he becomes intrigued by his rich and seemingly famous neighbour, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). No one knows where Gatsby’s from or anything much about him, other than that he throws fabulous parties every weekend, and everyone is there.
Nick, who seems to be unaware of these parties, finally gets an invitation from Gatsby and attends. There, he becomes better acquainted with Jordan and meets Gatsby for the first time. The entrance of the titular character is spectacular, fireworks and all.
Gatsby starts to pursue a friendship with Nick, which baffles him. One day, Gatsby invites him to lunch with his business partner, Meyer Wolfshiem, and says he wants to ask a favour of Nick. Before he can do so, they are interrupted by Tom. Nick later finds out from Jordan that Gatsby had a past with Daisy and wanted Nick help set up a reunion. He invites Daisy to tea.
The scene of the afternoon tea is really one of the best comedic scenes of I’ve seen DiCaprio do. He plays Gatsby’s desperation, nervousness and excitement perfectly to the T. After an awkward start, Daisy and he reunite and set off on a sexual affair.
We see the trio hanging out at Gatsby’s house, enjoying it’s luxuries, all of which, Gatsby tells Nick, he had bought for Daisy, hoping she would one day wander back into his life. He even bought a mansion right across the river from Daisy’s, so he could be close to her. From the looks that he gives her, it becomes clear to the audience and Nick – who is forever hanging out alone in the shadows, trying not to get noticed – that Gatsby is helplessly in love with Daisy, who for her part, seems to enjoy the attention, but nothing more. She laughs and giggles and kisses, but every night, she always goes back home.
I’ll take an aside here to introduce “the green light”. Every night, Nick sees Gatsby out on the end of his dock, watching a green light that shines across the river, from Daisy’s dock. She is the propeller that pushes him forward. She is the happiness he wants to have, and yet, she is also a distant thing he yearns to control.
The light becomes significant to Gatsby because for so many years, it’s been the only connection he’s had with her. When he mentions the light to Daisy (and later to Tom), they both seem unaware of it. It’s such a small thing, but it really plays into their characterizations. When Nick later calls them “careless people”, we can see it in the things they fail to notice in their own house.
But back to our story. Eventually, the secret meetings and rendezvous aren’t enough for Gatsby and he demands that Daisy divorce Tom to be with him. She seems to object, and instead wants to run away with him to create a new life together. This does not sit well with Gatsby at all.
He later voices his frustrations to Nick, and finally reveals his past. His real name is James Gatz, born dirt poor in North Dakota. Having always dreamt of a better life, James leaves home at 17, hoping to make something of himself, and ends up being taken in by the millionaire Dan Cody. He travels around the world with Cody in his yatch, learning the ways of the wealthy (and picking up his catchphrase, “old sport”), but is later cheated out of his inheritance when Cody dies. Instead, he goes to war in WWI, where as a soldier, he meets and falls in love with Daisy. When he receives a letter from Daisy telling him of her marriage, he dedicates his life to becoming wealthy, hoping to win her back. He’s worked hard to earn all of this for Daisy, he tells Nick, so when she tells him that she wants to run away, he sees it as impossible. His whole life has been set up to this moment, and to just throw it all away, well that seems crazy to him.
“My life has got to be like this. It’s got to keep going up,” he tells Nick and you finally understand that just like Daisy is trapped in a seemingly loveless marriage, Gatsby is trapped in his business. Everything he did to win the freedom to be with Daisy has trapped him deeper into a life of shady business. It’s like a tightrope dance and if he wants to survive, he’s got to keep dancing.
But when he finally gets around to describing his plan to Nick – having Daisy divorce her husband and then move across the river to live in the mansion with Gatsby – Nick cautions him: “I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” he says. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cries. “Why of course you can!”
And it’s at this point we realize, that he’s out of touch with reality. Some things can never be.
Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I got nothing but my aching soul?
These lyrics intersperse with scenes of Daisy and Gatsby enjoying a reunion after five years apart. And the question seems an apt one because it becomes increasingly clear that Gatsby’s world of glamour hides a much murkier business. His sudden wealth and rise in power has not been easy, and certainly not all legal.
The struggle of Gatsby – to be a gentleman, to be a part of this world that he has always dreamed of and been rejected by until he acquired an exuberant amount of wealth – comes to head at the lunch that Daisy invites him to, promising him that she will tell Tom that she never loved him and announce her divorce. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and there is a wonderful (and chilling) scene where Tom attacks Gatsby, telling him that he is a crook, and they (Nick, Daisy, Tom and Jordan) will forever be different from him because they were born different. The goading finally snaps something inside Gatsby and he screams “Shut up! shut up! Just shut up!”, grabbing Tom by the collar, his face set in a bright red fury, his body shaking as he tries to keep things together, even as they are falling apart all around him.
Fitzgerald writes “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
Leonardo Dicaprio in that scene embodies that, and so much more.
And it is then that Gatsby gets the answer to the question that the song asks: will you still love me when I’m no longer beautiful?
The answer is “No”.
Daisy does not love Gatsby for who he is. After seeing his outburst, she becomes increasingly upset, and it becomes clear to us (and Nick Carraway) at that point, that there is no going back.
Like Nick had told Gatsby earlier in the movie:
But Gatsby and Daisy leave together anyway, him chasing her, and she drives recklessly, tragically (or perhaps, fatefully?) killing Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, on the road. Everyone assumes it is Gatsby, however, as it is his shiny yellow car that they remember, and Tom does everything in his power to make that assumption stick.
“[Gatsby had] an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.”
Even as we can see that this love story has ended, and Gatsby will inevitably lose everything has worked so hard for, he himself holds out hope. Nick finds him sitting under Daisy’s window that night, keeping an eye on her just in case Tom decides to beat her for the day’s theatrics. Nick finds it to be the opposite, however, when he overhears Tom making plans with Daisy to get out of town in order to avoid suspicion.
This is a very important scene. Throughout the movie, we never really get to see how Daisy really feels because the movie is narrated by Nick, who is much closer to Gatsby and cares more for his troubles than Daisy’s. In this scene, however, we see her scared and tired, letting Tom once again guide her back to a place that she never really had the heart to leave in the first place.
For Daisy, Gatsby is the love of her youth, the dream she dreamed when she was a young girl falling in love for the first time. She has never considered him a serious option, so when forced to choose between the life that she dislikes but is comfortable in, and between the life that she once wanted, Daisy ultimately decides to stick with comfort. People are reluctant to leave the shelter of their lives in order to explore the world, and Daisy is no different. Gatsby might have grand visions, he might have made his dreams come true, but the woman he loves is not his kind. She does not have the courage to live a different life, nor does she love him enough to even want to. The Daisy that Gatsby loves and the woman she really is are two very different people.
For her, he is a “spree” (as Tom puts it), and for him, she is the reason for everything. The parties, the house, the grandeur… “it was all for Daisy”.
It is no surprise then that even as Gatsby hopes and waits, Daisy never calls. He is killed by Myrtle’s widowed husband, who is duped by Tom into thinking that Myrtle was sleeping with Gatsby and that is why he killed her. The press follow suit, pinning the whole thing on him after his death, and the Buchanans escape unscathed.
It is not until Tom, the lone attendant of Gatsby’s funeral, calls the Buchanan resident to try and implore Daisy to come to the funeral, that we get the real sense of Gatsby’s tragedy.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy,” Nick notes. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And that defines the characters, and this movie, better than any review could.
How could Daisy not have foreseen the horrible dissolution that was going to happen if she invited Gatsby to have lunch with her husband under the guise of “breaking the news” to him? In retrospect, I feel that Daisy never really took her affair with Gatsby seriously. For her, he was a nice daydream, and despite his repeated shows of affection and demands, she never really got how much further into this she had fallen until the breakdown in the hotel room. Tom’s own carelessness is shown throughout the movie as he carries on a barely veiled affair with Myrtle, whom he uses and abuses to his pleasure. Similarly, when Daisy abandons him to
go dance make out with Gatsby at a party later in the movie, he – despite having an inkling as to what is going on – goes on to sleep with another one of the party guests. In the end, we realize that Tom and Daisy are two peas in a pod. They are both flaky, careless people and while they don’t really seem to love or even like each other that much, they are trapped in a cage of their own making. In the end, I believe Daisy doesn’t truly love Tom nor Gatsby. She has a love of material things.
For Gatsby’s part, how could he ask her to tell her husband – with whom she has a daughter – that she never loved him? Nick warns Gatsby to not ask too much of Daisy, and that’s exactly what he does. He overestimates the affection she has for him, and all the cards he has set up for this moment, for
his their happy ending, crumble up in a heap. Earlier in the movie, Gatsby notes that falling in love with Daisy had changed his destiny forever, and if he hadn’t lost her, he might have been a great man. But it was not his love for Daisy that causes Gatsby to fall. It is him trying to make something happen that just couldn’t.
The emergence of the nouveau riche is a prominent theme in the movie. Everyone from Wolfshiem to Nick is trying to cash in on the Wall Street success. Gatsby himself is the American dream. He is the envy, and people (such as Tom) who have not achieved much besides being handed down “old money”, do everything in their power to bring him down. He feels misunderstood and lonely among them, and even the woman he loves cannot understand his grand designs. He is a lost soul and in some ways, I think Nick can relate to that.
Tom and Daisy are not just careless people, they are also shallow in a way that they cannot understand life beyond tomorrow. Gatsby’s plans and hopes are lost on them. Nick is the only one who comes close to understanding, probably because he shares Gatsby’s upstart struggles and understands the true magnitude of his achievements.
Though the focus is on the romance of Daisy and Gatsby, I thought the best relationship in the movie was him and Nick. Even though they’ve only known each other one summer, they grow very close, close enough for Gatsby to open up to Nick and for Nick to care enough about him to arrange his funeral and then write about it. After Gatsby’s death, Nick leaves New York, disgusted by the people surrounding him. I think these two were drawn to each other because they understood each other in ways their wealthy peers couldn’t. They were both upstarts, trying to make it rich. While Gatsby yearned for love, Nick yearns for success. They both sacrifice parts of themselves to get what they want (Gatsby gets involved in shady business, and Nick abandons his dream of writing to make it big in Wall Street).
I thought Nick’s realization that no truth he told was going to clear Gatsby’s name and that everyone, even Daisy, had abandoned his friend was kind of heartbreaking. I don’t think even Nick himself realized how good friends they’d become until after he was dead.
(some people have theorized that Nick was in love Gatsby, but I saw no inclination of that in the movie; perhaps it is different in the book)
All in all, I loved the movie. I though the juxtaposition of the 1920s glamour with the modern day music really gave the movie a fresh feel. Though the style seemed a bit strange at first, it soon grew on me. Luhrmann successfully brought the story into the 21st century, and made it work. DiCaprio’s performance was brilliant. After watching it, my first reaction was: “There are no words to describe how much I love this performance”. He really drew you into the character, and Gatsby’s tragedy was deepened by the charm and allure DiCaprio brought to the role. Any less talented actor would’ve lost the character in the movie’s flash and excess. Without Leo, this movie might have felt gaudy, but his refined performance as the enigmatic yet endearing Gatsby made the movie spectacular and made us believe that the madness of Gatsby was possible. If I was to describe his performance in a picture, this would be fitting:
Between this and Django if Leo doesn’t win an Oscar this year, I will demand for the Oscar committee to be dismantled (because they obviously cannot see good acting when they see it!).
Tobey McGuire gave a good performance as Nick Carraway, though I found his slow delivery of narrative dialogue to be distracting. Carey Mulligan’s treads a fine line between flaky and guileless as Daisy, who – even when she is screwing Gatsby over – you cannot help but feel sorry for her. Mulligan plays her as the pathetic housewife / dreamer / oppressed woman, and carries out all parts wonderfully. The chemistry between her and DiCaprio was great and didn’t seem forced at all. The heightened sense of realism that flows throughout the movie, emphasized by Gatsby’s elaborate parties, added to the “dream life” that Gatsby and Daisy live in; and like all dreams, this one too ends.
Some things I thought could be done better: I wish we had gotten more of a story on how Nick ended up in therapy, and because the explanation was for Gatsby’s “shady business” was a little bit too understated at times. I wish they had been more explicit with it; even the scene with Tom abusing Gatsby the hotel room wasn’t descriptive enough to fully understand the true nature of Gatsby’s business. There were also some technical bits that I wish were better done (at times, the cinematography seemed too bright, too saturated; the scenes moved a little faster than I would’ve liked sometimes, but I suppose that added to the movie’s wonky charm).
The music was amazing and given that this movie was produced by Jay Z, it definitely lived up to the standard. Lana Del Ray’s “Young and Beautiful” and Florence + The Machine’s “Over The Love” were special standouts for me. Both haunting songs and oh-so-good.
I give this movie 4 stars out of 5 and would definitely watch it again!