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great gatsby
Click for full sized poster

The Great Gatsby

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Amitabh Bachchan
Screenplay by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

IN SHORT: Poetry in motion. [Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. 140 minutes]

Yow! That's a pretentious summation! Then again, star Leonardo DiCaprio states (in the notes we get from the studio) that he read F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" while in Junior High School. Given that yours Cranky didn't open the book until the first year of college, that statement makes us feel positively ancient. The themes within Gatsby are on such an adult level, we can't figure how a fourteen or fifteen year old student could ever understand it. At its core Gatsby is a "Don't mess with my wife" story whose big twist comes in a one character's emotional development, which affects the outcome of the story. That happens so late in the story we're not going to drop the slightest of clues.

The Great Gatsby is a simple story about true love versus love bought with obscene amounts of wealth. Underneath the surface it is a battle between those who have Earned their fortunes versus those who are Entitled to theirs, having been born in the "right" families. Attractive, blank faces, whose lives are driven by money and racism and entitlement versus those that actually work for a living. In the middle is a woman who has crossed from one world to the other, pursued by a man who wishes to make the same journey, just to be with her. The resolution will not be neat and tidy.

It has long been a habit of New Yorkers desperate to avoid the city summer heat to rent homes in the Long Island environs because it is cooler and the coolest people tend to circulate in these temporary communities. Bond Trader Nick Carraway Tobey Maguire) rents a  gardener's bungalow in the hoity toity environs of West Egg. His shack rests in the shadow of a grand mansion occupied by Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), wealthy beyond the grasp of regular people. Who or what Gatsby is or does for a living is clouded in mystery and subject to hushed discussions among the old guard of the territory. All that matters in the Summer of 1922, to the people of Long Island's North Shore, or those who drive or take a train across the Queensboro Bridge out to West Egg, is that Gatsby throws the best parties to be found anywhere outside of the honky tonks on New York's Forty Second street. Prohibition may be the Rule of the Day but it is a rule that is broken every night.

At those parties, those of unknown sources of wealth -- Gatsby -- and those self-proclaimed blue bloods of Yale and such rub shoulders that wouldn't normally be rubbed. The top dog in this crowd is the loud-mouthed Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), who freely expresses the opinion that White People are of superior stock, as African-American servants dish out dinner, Tom's wife Daisy (Carey Mulligan) is a Southern Belle beauty queen by way of Louisville, Kentucky. A trophy wife in the days before the term had been coined. Tom is not a particularly nice character. He is emotionally abusive to his wife but he is richer than sin and all and he provides a better life than what would have been left for Daisy down South, once the glamour of being a beauty queen had faded.

Nick happens to be related to Daisy. His Yale ring makes him welcome in the same snobby circles as Tom and what passes for another friendship is formed. It is bonded on one boring train ride as Tom pulls Nick off the train and into a roadside garage . . . home to Myrtle and George Wilson (Isla Fisher and Jason Clarke). George is Tom's auto mechanic. Myrtle is Tom's piece on the side. Myrtle has lots of friends who are more than happy to keep Nick occupied --- though he does his best to resist. Such is the apparent life of the obscenely wealthy. The women are trophies. The Man can play all  he wants, because he is the bank.

Nick isn't that kind of rich. He also has moral standards. For a wannabee writer, he strangely avoids getting neck deep in the seedier sides of life that would provide fodder for a budding raconteur. Nevermind, the story comes to mister Carraway in the form of a written invitation to one of Gatsby's fests. Nick is thrilled, flashing the invite to every other person at the party, most of whom have crashed. When Gatsby makes his first  screen appearance, to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and fireworks going off in the sky --- that's a lyrical sample of a Blue Oyster Cult album track from the 1970s and they're a Long Island band, too <g> -- it's just a stunning moment. Stunning in a hit you over the head like music videos did thirty years ago kind of way, but it works.

Gatsby is determined to befriend Nick, opening his estate and bank to the whims of a man who had been a total stranger not 24 hours earlier. Gatsby wants to exploit Nick's familial connection to Daisy because, apparently, Gatsby wants the girl. Gatsby is willing to exploit any connection, take any action and spend whatever money is necessary to take Daisy away from Tom. His reasons are his own, but we'll know the whole back story by the time the story is done.

The question of where Gatsby's money comes from is discussed in hushed tones by the partygoers at any of Gatsby's outrageous soirees. But with the gossip comes a not so thinly veiled layer of racism; anti-Semitic shmutz aimed at Gatsby for being partnered in the "drug store business," with a Jew named Meyer Wolfshiem (played by Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan). The drug stores are fronts for speakeasies, thus the source of Gatsby's fortune. Luhrmann may have tried to use the Indian star to soften the racism of this part of the story. Unfortunately, Bachchan happens to physically look like the racist stereotype image of "Jew" that has been prevalent for years and we found it to be particularly offensive.

OTT Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is, strangely enough, very much like the history of MTV. It begins as a bunch of unknown faces are joined in a big, splashy music video and degenerates into a seedy reality show. This is now what passes for "classic" in America.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Great Gatsby, he would have paid . . .


The Great Gatsby is pretty much a disposable sit. More important, it's an easy sit. The faces are pretty. The story is clearly told and, even if the sound track now uses rap in the place of the jazz that fueled 1920s, it works. That's all that counts.

amazon com link Click to buy films by Baz Luhrmann
Click to buy films starring Leonardo DiCaprio
Click to buy films starring Tobey Maguire
Click to buy films starring Carey Mulligan
Click to buy novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.