Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Gazette weekly column, “On Topic,” from 05-26-13
As we were coming out of a showing of the Baz Luhrmann-directed movie “The Great Gatsby” — the latest in a line of movie versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel — we passed a clutch of older-than-middle-aged women, and one of them sighed to her friend, “I was hoping for a happy ending.”
Really? Did you not read the book in high school? You didn’t see that tragic conclusion coming a mile off?
But it occurred to me that maybe she was disappointed by this latest cinematic “Gatsby” — just as a number of movie critics, too, have been, well, critical — because they’re missing the point.
“The Great Gatsby” is a love story. But not just between the title character and the waffling Daisy. It’s a love story about capitalism.
Every character in “Gatsby,” the book and the movie, is rich or wants to be. There are the Old Money types, represented by Daisy’s brutish husband, Tom Buchanan, as well as the New Money upstarts, emblemized by Jay Gatsby.
The Old Money folk are suspicious of how the New Moneyed came by their wealth. And it appears our hero came by his fabulous riches as a front for Meyer Wolfsheim, a gambler.
“He's the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919,” Gatsby confides to the story’s narrator, Nick Carraway.
Even the less well-off try to imitate their “betters.” In scenes that parallel the opulent parties held at Gatsby’s mansion, Nick and Tom spend time with Nick’s mistress, the wife of a garage owner, and her friends as behave not any differently than the rich: They drink, dance, smooch and fight until they pass out.
And there’s Nick himself, who reflects Fitzgerald’s conflicted view of the well-fixed and gorgeous: He joins in on their carousing and boozing. But he also has a clear view of them.
When Fitzgerald wrote elsewhere, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” he didn’t mean that as a total compliment.
As Nick notes at the end of the sad tale:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast careless, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made.
Luhrmann, I suspect, also saw this story as a debate about capitalism. His movie reminds me of “Citizen Kane,” another famous cautionary fable about how big money can do bad things to good people. (That 1941 movie initially was to be titled “American.”)
In “Gatsby” Leonardo DiCaprio more than once looks directly into the camera’s eye and shares with us that charming, melancholy smile — as if to say, “I understand you, old sport” — for all the world like Kane’s creator, Orson Welles, as tries to seduce us.
Look, Gatsby and Kane tell us, all this money can gain us that one thing we truly want above all else, and it can save you, too.
Except, as with so many love stories going back to Romeo and Juliet, it so often doesn’t.