It’s taken me a couple of days to sort through my feelings about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and not just because the cinematography during the many scenes in it set in automobiles made me carsick. It’s an enormously overstuffed movie, with party sequences that turn on my latent claustrophobia, a cacophonous soundtrack, and so many baubles it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a jewelry store — and there’s a great deal of Tiffany product placement in the movie, particularly of Daisy’s “string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars” and a headpiece she wears to a party — rathe than a movie. But one thing that Luhrmann’s adaptation gets right, and that brings out one of my favorite performances by Leonardo DiCaprio in a long time, is the way Gatsby marries conspicuous consumption, subtle class-based knowledge, and social awkwardness.
One of the best scenes in the movie stems from a situation where Gatsby’s (DiCaprio) set up a situation that’s guaranteed to be awkward: he’s asked Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) to ask his old flame Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), now married to a wealthy boor named Tom (Joel Edgerton) to tea so he can just drop by and reconnect with her. It’s an attempt to be casual in a situation that requires deliberation and a direct approach, and it puts Nick, who is Daisy’s cousin, in an awful social position. As Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) puts it in Fitzgerald’s novel, “I think he half expected her to wander into one of his parties, some night, but she never did. Then he began asking people casually if they knew her, and I was the first one he found. it was that night he sent for me at his dance, and you should have heard the elaborate way he worked up to it. Of course I immediately suggested a luncheon in New York — and I thought he’d go mad.”
In the movie, Luhrmann’s delight in conspicuous consumption illustrates just how badly Gatsby is going about orchestrating this meeting. He has Nick’s small house landscaped overnight, then descends on it with a team of umbrella-toting butlers to jam it full of orchids and a multi-layer cake, as if he’s catering a society wedding rather than being invited to his friend’s home. The makeover is simultaneously an insult to Nick and the modest home he’s able to rent and a total sabotage of Gatsby’s attempt at casualness. He’s desperate to seem spontaneous, but he can’t relinquish control of the moment to achieve it, insistent that the moment be perfect, but completely out of things to say. Watching DiCaprio wander in and out of Nick’s house, into the rain and out of the rain, and then totally forget that he’s soaking wet and in a small living room that looks like a greenhouse is a scene as precisely bizarre as the moment demands. And it gets at one of the central reveals of the scene: how little Gatsby is actually thinking about Daisy, or what she might be feeling. The tableau he’s set up is all about him, and he’s shocked when Nick points out part of the reason he’s going wrong. “You’re just embarrased, that’s all,” Nick tells him. “Daisy’s embarrssed too.” “She’s embarrassed?” Gatsby wants to know. He’s assumed both that Daisy is so poised that she couldn’t possibly be rattled, and that his return to her life will be a source of uncomplicated joy. It never seems to have occurred to Gatsby that Daisy is not, in fact, a princess in a tower, and that there might be a reason she hasn’t come looking for him.Then, there’s the fantastic scene towards the end of the movie and the novel, when Gatsby’s confrontation with Tom and with Daisy, who turns out to be on nobody’s side but her own, reaches its climax. Tom’s a grotesque, limited person, but he turns out to have a weapon available to him that cuts Gatsby deeply: the ability to point out the errors in the self-image he’s constructed. “An Oxford man!” Tom sneers at Gatsby in “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.” He hasn’t even needed the investigation he was making into Gatsby’s background — and no one really needed to fact-check Gatsby’s narrative — to get at what Tom has identified as a central truth. Gatsby lacks a certain innate sense of taste and decorum that would allow him to really pass. He’s rented a house in the wrong town, his parties are the wrong kinds of parties to lure Daisy out, and for his big moment, he’s picked a suit that demonstrates he doesn’t understand what’s important in Daisy’s life, security more than romance, and the right kinds of social signifiers rather than the compass of her heart.
Watching DiCaprio, I was reminded of nothing so much as the episodes that lead up to the conclusion of the third season of The Wire, and David Simon’s chronicle of the last days of drug-dealer-trying-to-go-legitimate Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Watching Bell put on a suit to go meet with State Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), only to find himself shaken down again and again for bribes, or losing his cool when his contractors kept introducing new wrinkles that they blamed on everything from the permitting process to Baltimore’s ethnic politics, was agonizing, in part because it was a familiar dilemma writ large. When characters demonstrate a lack of understanding of social norms — or of when those norms are manipulated to mock or shake them down — it’s painful not just because it’s unpleasant to see someone we’ve invested in come to harm, but because we feel a little bit of revulsion, too, a desire to distance ourselves from the discomfort those characters are bringing upon themselves. Gatsby’s pursuit of the green light is hard to watch not because it’s impossible, but because he went about it wrong. And Stringer Bell’s dream of Baltimore is tragic because his downfall in pursuit of it was of his own making.