One element that seems to unite the greatest Irish American novelists and dramatists (and the poets) is their creations’ remarkable capacity for love and the disillusionment that follows it. In the work of Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill and Frank O’Hara, for example, it can seem bottomless. There’s often a kind of doom in it too, as though a blind faith in love can save you from faithlessness in almost every other area of your life.
It can’t do that, of course. No one can live with that kind of trade off, which is at some level deeply adolescent, and Fitzgerald makes that clear in his unforgettable portrait of Gatsby.
Gatsby wants to reach back five years into his past and reclaim a Daisy who no longer exists. That kind of foolishness and self-deception has fateful consequences.
In the book and in the new film we have to keep asking ourselves who exactly this Nick Carraway is? Both he and Gatsby want access to a world they weren’t born into, and if there’s a difference between them it becomes harder to tell what it is as the film goes on.
Because of this Tobey Maguire quietly steals the film as the haunted young observer who fails to spot the danger he’s in until it’s entirely too late. In a striking departure from previous film versions of the classic tale, Luhrmann allows us to realize that 'The Great Gatsby' is a love story, but the love at the center of it is not for Daisy. It’s for the idea of Daisy, which is not the same thing, and for the man who loved that idea and the man who witnesses what happens because of it.
Music by Jay Z marks a seamless transition between the music of the 1920s and 2013 that brings a modern urgency to the film. That this exchange works as well as it does is down to rap star and producer’s talent and his familiarity with the music of that era, which was defined by the Harlem sound.
Watching the film, the parallels between the early 1920s and now are self-evident. So much so they may unnerve some critics who may not like the message that sends.
For the rich in the film life’s a sumptuous party that never ends, and for the rest there’s a palpable sense that the promise of the American Dream has faded. Everyone in the story, including the decade and even the country itself, has caught a kind of hysteria that can only lead to a crash.
It’s not for nothing that Gatsby’s nemesis is called Tom Buchanan, either. That Scottish surname arrived in America in the 17th century. It’s a name and an inheritance that’s as old and formidable as Gatsby’s is new.
The face-off between Gatsby and Buchanan isn’t just a wrestling match for Daisy’s affections. It’s a struggle for social, political and financial dominance that is still playing out in 2013.
Irish people in particular will understand Fitzgerald’s meaning. “They're a rotten crowd,” Carraway shouts at Gatsby towards the film’s end, “you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together...”
By focusing on one self-made man’s spectacular rise and fall, 'The Great Gatsby' captures the American century at its highpoint, and in all its hubris, and the result is a provocative and moving film.
Here's a trailer for "The Great Gatsby":