Baz Luhrmann has a modest goal for his movie version of The Great Gatsby. He plans to fulfill every high school English teacher’s fantasy: making the book seem relevant to our present moment. In the age of the one percent, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Gatsby’s parties will come alive in lurid 3D decadence to a soundtrack that replaces the jazz of the Jazz Age with the bass and beat of hip hop and the club. Everything will be bigger and better. Judging from the trailer (and that’s all we here at pastpersistent can judge from in the absence of an invitation to the premiere at Cannes), Gatsby won’t just toss a dazzling array of custom made shirts at Daisy and Nick, he’ll rain them down on their heads off of a balcony.
If this isn’t excitement enough, the trailer also highlights the film’s homage to the car chase scene from The French Connection. Although Gatsby usually doesn’t strike one as an action filled novel, Fitzgerald does make a reference to Gatsby’s car speeding along at more than forty, yes, even fifty or sixty miles per hour. The car might be slow but the movie makers stayed true to the novel’s cold-eyed analysis of nouveau riche desperation. They reportedly plunked down more, possibly much more, than a million each for three 1929 roadsters.
In ways large and small, the rest of us are encouraged to do the same. Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s are rolling out Gatsby inspired collections. But if a six figure ring is beyond your price point, you might be able to swing some eye shadow. And in a worst case scenario, you could always buy the book. You won’t be alone. Despite the kerfuffle over the new movie tie-in cover, Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic is on its way to the top of the year’s bestseller list.
The merchandising does kind of undercut the novel’s premise: that you can’t buy your way into social acceptance in America. It’s a problem for the film. These days, a guy like Jay Gatsby would have to behave a lot worse to get any pushback. No, for an actual takedown of arriviste tackiness, what you need to watch is The Queen of Versailles, the recent documentary about a wealthy timeshare king and his beauty pageant trophy wife as they undertake to build the largest private home in the United Sates. Getting takeout for ten from McDonald’s in your stretch limo while dropping a few million on outfits worthy of the adult film industry—now that’s tacky. Indeed, it doesn’t take much to imagine that this is how Gatsby’s Myrtle (Tom Buchanan’s middle-class mistress) would have behaved were she actually to have deposed Daisy and run off with the rich guy.
Jay Gatsby, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is, in Daisy’s famous line, much too cool for all that. If the movie works—and we’ll know soon enough even if we don’t have press passes for Cannes—it will surely be due to the boy wonder all grown up. DiCaprio’s got the Fitzgerald feel. In Titanic he gave us the longing of the steerage-class striver who shouts “I’m the king of the world” from the bow of the world’s most famous boat. In Catch Me If You Can, he charmed us as the slippery shape-shifting con man who was everything to everyone despite being nothing at all. In Woody Allen’s Celebrity, he made sly fun of his own image as a badly behaved star and in Aviator, took a turn as troubled genius Howard Hughes whose greatness was undone by paranoia and obsession.
These are facets of the American character that Fitzgerald set out to autopsy in Gatsby. At the start of that novel, the eponymous character was already dead and Nick Carraway, the staid everyman who narrates Gatsby’s story, has already returned home to the humdrum Midwest. The lights have done dark in Gatsby’s mansion. And when the lights come up in the movie theater, one wonders what will remain with us: the brightness of the fireworks or the brevity of their sparkle.