The latest film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” does a decent job of recalling the story. So what’s with the “Catcher in the Rye” business at the beginning and the ending about Nick Carraway telling history to a psychiatrist?
Certainly this is Carraway’s story. But it is true the movie and book have a title that suggests this is a tale about the mysterious Jay Gatsby (played here well by Leonardo DiCaprio), an incredibly wealthy man who just appeared in Jazz Age New York City and began hosting huge and extravagant weekend parties at his Long Island estate.
Just by dumb luck, Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves into a small house next door to the Gatsby mansion. He has come to town to get into the booming bond business, but he obviously doesn’t have the sort of rapacious single-mindedness that will make him a top financial instrument salesman. But he can perform routine social duties.
He gets an invitation to come to one of the vast Gatsby parties where orchestras play, dancers perform, fireworks are shot off, and free liquor is everywhere. At some point Nick realizes that he is the only one who has been invited, that the parties are there to attract anyone and everyone, but that as his cousin has not yet been lured, Gatsby has recognized Nick, Daisy’s cousin, as a strategic asset.
Not that Gatsby is cynical about this. His refusal to leave his innocence is one of the story’s points. He seems to honestly take to his neighbor. But he does manage to stammer out a request that Nick help him to meet Daisy (Carey Mulligan) again. The two were in love in Tennessee before the war. But while Gatsby went off to make a post-war fortune, Daisy didn’t wait. She married Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), one of Nick’s Yale classmates, and came with him to New York.
Nick soon learns that Tom has a mistress, Mrs. Wilson (Isla Fisher in a career re-defining part), the wife of the beaten man who runs a garage half-way into the city. The movie does a better job than does the novel of contrasting an impromptu party at Tom and Mrs. Wilson’s secret city apartment with an impromptu party r the end of the story, thrown by Tom, but this time in the Plaza Hotel.
Nick is surprised by almost everything he sees that summer—Gatsby’s displays of wealth, his partnership with the gambler Meyer Wolfsheim, Tom’s profligate immorality, Daisy’s happiness on again meeting Gatsby, Gatsby’s incredible autobiographies—there are two, and the odd faith his rich neighbor professes in his ability to erase five years of history.
Probably the movie misses a bet by ignoring Fitzgerald’s criticism of Daisy’s friend and Nick’s sometime companion Jordan Baker. The novel goes to some trouble to confirm that she is personally dishonest. The only remark made about her in the film insists that just the opposite is true.
The greater error in the film is that it makes Daisy less vacant than she seems to be in the novel. This is a function of the film’s inability to stay with Nick, to see everything from his eyes. When Daisy and Gatsby must together carry a scene, they have to be more complicated than they were in the book.
Accomplished Australian Director Baz Luhrmann (“Strictly Ballroom,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge”) has put together a great-looking version of Gatsby with terrific performances by its male actors and by Fisher. He has substituted contemporary music for twenties jazz, but it seemed to me the effect was right.
Consequently I admire this important movie, even if I can’t figure out what to make of the frame that has Nick writing all this out as psychiatric treatment.