Making the Grades
The 1920s are roaring and Nick Carraway’s (Tobey Maguire) aspirations to become a famous writer are fading as he is lured into the much more lucrative business of stock brokering. But his job is secondary to the location of the small home he has recently rented on the Long Island shore because next door is the towering estate of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Despite the many garish parties he throws, Gatsby is an elusive host. The house fills with invited and uninvited guests across all social classes, yet no one really knows what the moneyed legend looks like or, even more mysterious, the roots of his fortune. When Nick receives a rare personal request to attend one of the events, he is flattered with Gatsby’s effort to get to know him. After realizing they both served in the same division during the war the two become fast friends. Soon Nick is pulled into Gatsby’s world and discovers the motivating factor for not only the proffered friendship but the man’s entire existence: Gatsby wants Nick’s help to rekindle his former romance with Nick’s cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan).
Prior to Gatsby’s appeal, Nick had begun on his own initiative to be reacquainted with Daisy who, not coincidently, lives in a mansion directly across the bay with her rich lout of a husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). It’s immediately obvious the marriage is strained. This is later confirmed when Tom invites Nick to a private rendezvous at a Manhattan flat with some other women—including Myrtle (Isla Fisher), his mistress. With the knowledge of the man’s infidelity, Nick’s concerns about introducing his married cousin to Gatsby soften. Yet the rather wide-eyed, innocent broker has no idea what his interference is about to reveal.
Director Baz Lurhrmann literally illuminates the period in which F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is set. Automobiles, telephones and electricity work to both facilitate and interrupt the twenty-four hour a day high-society life of 1920s New York City. Illegal alcohol, all night parties, sexual escapades and drugs (referred to as “nerve medicine”) appear to keep the populous distracted while a bribed police commissioner looks the other way. The mayhem results in numerous depictions of revelry and sensuality, although profanities are infrequent and mild.
For families with older teens, many who may be reading The Great Gatsby in school, the film’s stylish visuals and engaging presentation might encourage deeper critical thinking despite the content issues. There is an obvious bias favoring those who are not from the wealthy establishment, yet in this interpretation one also senses an insatiable excitement for the modern urban world and its many (often sordid) opportunities. It also provides an interesting look at the female characters of this era and their dependence on men to determine their destinies.
Anyone familiar with the novel knows this is a great American tragedy, one that illustrates how lust and greed can destroy lives. But unless you are willing to dig below the surface, you may mistake this near-century old tale as being yet another film about rich people having big parties.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Great Gatsby.
What are the attitudes toward various social, sexual and ethnic groups in this film? Specifically what are the attitudes toward the rich versus the poor? Blacks versus whites? And women versus men?
Do you think Daisy was foolish for making the choices she did? Or is she a product of the time period in which she lives?
Considering the short time Gatsby had to become enraptured with Daisy, do you think his motivations for engineering his entire life around the hope of being reunited with her are justified?
Gatsby is seen as the tragic hero or protagonist, yet as we learn of his background, is he ethically any better than Tom? What would some of the unseen consequences be for Gatsby’s choices? Why did the author choose to not display these while explicitly showing Tom’s behavior? Can you think of heroes in other movies who have similar unseen pasts?