Okay, okay, okay. I was going to try to stay out of this one. Despite all evidence and appearances to the contrary, I don’t enjoy hating everything. I just do. When it was announced that Baz Luhrmann was doing “The Great Gatsby,” I was, of course, skeptical and fending off the storm clouds of complainus immediatus (in which you bitch about something you don’t know anything about yet). I like Baz Luhrmann! I like “Moulin Rouge!” I like “Romeo+Juliet!” I think he does a really great job with things when he picks a plot line and says fuck all to the rest of it (re: Romeo and Juliet)! He’s pretty cool then!
I have not, and I probably will not, see Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby.” It’s a combination of my own artistic shortcomings, in not being able to separate my intense adoration of Fitzgerald (though Gatsby’s not even my favorite) from the act of seeing a movie based on the story; of a budget that requires me to be selective about the movies I see in theaters (and I am not paying $20 to see a cheap-shot 3D version of a book I can read in a matter of two hours); and of that wisdom that comes with growing up, getting to know one’s self–I am not going to like that movie, so I am not going to see it. Come back to me when it’s streaming on Netflix, and we’ll talk.
What I do want to talk about is a remark I’ve seen across most–or all–reviews of the film, and it goes a little something like this. “I thought Carey Mulligan’s performance as Daisy was flat and boring, but then I realized that the character of Daisy is flat and boring, so she was actually doing a great job!” or “Mulligan’s Daisy was unimpressive and empty, but the character of Daisy is an unimpressive, empty woman who sits back and lets the tragedy of her own life happen in front of her,” or “Daisy seems like a bauble of a woman that Gatsby just put all his hopes and dreams into, but that’s the point!” These are all paraphrases of sentiments I’ve read in professional reviews, comments on other reviews, etc.
I take great issue with this sentiment, because, to me, this underlines a huge problem–whether it’s with Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation or the public’s reception of it (if this is the case though, and if Luhrmann feels his interpretation/adaptation has been misunderstood by the general public, then I would argue he did not do a great job of communicating his message), or maybe it all comes down to America’s still-underlying sexism. I KNOW, I KNOW, saying anyone doesn’t understand a work of literature is a cardinal sin that we’re supposed to shy away from committing. I am not saying Luhrmann’s interpretation is wrong–and keep in mind I haven’t seen it–but I think it sounds very limited and, when we reductio ad absurdum this interpretation, it’s actually offensive.
Daisy is empty, sure. She says so herself. She’s seen it all, done it all, and come out of it feeling jaded and bored. She’s flippant and petulant, she’s immature, she’s selfish. I don’t like Daisy, as in I think she’s a great person and want to be friends with her and have her teach me the ways of the world. But guess what: I don’t like any of them, even Nick Carraway, the “only honest” person in the book, the “reliable” (re: not so) narrator.
Gatsby is just as empty as Daisy is. There is not more to Gatsby’s character because he put all his hopes and dreams into the “empty bauble” that is Daisy, but that’s certainly how it’s talked about. Gatsby is as empty as Daisy, his dreams as empty, his hopes for life as empty, and he is no more complex for having followed an empty dream to the ends of the earth and back. And his life is as empty as Daisy’s–a big house he doesn’t care about (except for the prospect of Daisy seeing it); parties he barely attends, let alone enjoys (again, thrown for the sake of luring Lady Bauble to them); people he befriends solely for their relations to his Empty Dream (then again, Nick says at the beginning that he disapproved of Gatsby from beginning to end, so with friends like that, who needs friends, right?). To call Daisy empty, flat and boring and not call Gatsby the same thing is demonstration of an inherently sexist belief that men are somehow automatically more three-dimensional and complex than women.
But all the main characters in this book are empty vessels, which, in my mind, is the main point of the book, and of Fitzgerald’s entire commentary (across all of his works) of the Jazz Age. It’s a time of people with a lot of money trying to fill their lives with meaning, even if that meaning is that there is no meaning. And though this emptiness does have a lot to do with class, and the monetary ability to find life so empty, the Jazz Age Standard was set by the wealthy, and so even the less wealthy are aiming for–and missing–the same things the wealthy are. Nick Carraway, for all his middle-class-ness, is also empty. Before the story of “The Great Gatsby,” he is a man who works in the bond business, who reads bond books at night, who dates a few girls he can hardly be bothered to say two sentences about and eventually lets them all “quietly fade away” anyway. Then he meets Gatsby, sees Daisy and Tom again, courts Jordan, and guess what?! His life is still empty. Why? Because he tells us he doesn’t really like any of them, he has no aspirations to live life at their level, he doesn’t even seem to hate them enough to justify spending all his time around them and penning a 180-page book about them! Our Beloved Narrator (and I do love him, just like I love BaubleDaisy, and StalkerGatsby, and RacistTom, and PathologicalLiarJordan, which is not to say I like them) goes around talking about what an honest man he is, but spending all his time with people he can barely seem to have a conversation with, let alone an honest one. Tom? Empty–filling his life with horses and women and “scientific” aka racist books, but never, never satisfied. Jordan? Empty–though I would argue that actually, Jordan happens to be the least empty character in the whole book, but empty, more so because we aren’t given information about her. Myrtle? Empty. Then we get into minor minor characters, and most of them seem like real people (Owl Eyes? He comes back to the funeral! Let’s talk about that in a totally different time and place).
A few reviews have had comments like, “Yes! Finally! A Gatsby that seems appropriately delusional and stalker-obsessed!” which, I guess, I have less of a problem with, but I still have a problem with it. The point of Gatsby is not that he’s delusional and potentially a dangerous stalker, the point of Gatsby is how many people like Gatsby do you know, because I know a few. I also know a few like Daisy, and sometimes I feel like Daisy, and sometimes I feel like Gatsby, and sometimes I think like Nick, and sometimes I balance invisible objects on my chin like Jordan. Tom and I have nothing in common, okay, nothing. I have heard people say that Fitzgerald doesn’t understand people, that he was writing about a time, that he only writes for the rich. The latter comment is the most valid on that list, but it doesn’t discount the fact that Fitzgerald wrote about people he knew, about people he was from time to time. Fitzgerald wrote about–much like he lived–wealthy people, or people striving to be wealthy, or hanging onto the wealthy, who should have had it all, and came away with nothing. The Jazz Age was a time of supreme decadence, but also supreme emptiness. Questioning what it all meant–what did life mean, what did it mean to fall in love, get married, go to war, have children, be rich, be beautiful, be young. What did it all mean? What could it all mean? Was more better?
“The Great Gatsby” is not a love story, it’s a what-is-love story. It’s not a friendship story, it’s a what-is-friendship story. It is, inarguably, a story about wealth, and a story about what we dream for our lives. And if that’s not what people are talking about after they see Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” then I think, maybe, he missed the mark.