Ben Stein's Diary

Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby Is Tops

The film displays a must-see understanding of the human heart.

By 5.28.13

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Every so often, maybe every 30 years, the movie industry comes out with a work of art so powerful, so magnificently on target about the human condition, that it simply must be seen. That would have been Gone With the Wind, for example, or Blade Runner.

Now, the moviemaker Baz Luhrmann has done it again. He has taken what is, in many people’s opinion, “the Great American novel,” The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and made it into a movie so lush, so overwhelmingly insightful about what makes humans tick, that it breaks your heart, mends it again, and sends you back into the world with heightened sensitivity about what it means to be a human being.

Gatsby, as we all know if we did not cut class in 11th grade, is a man who comes from nowhere to fall in love with, Daisy Fay, a spectacularly beautiful society girl from Louisville, Kentucky, in 1917. But he has no money, and he tells Daisy he cannot marry her until he becomes rich. So after heroic service in World War I, he comes back to America, joins up with bootleggers and bond fraudsters, and makes a pile of moolah.

Meanwhile, Daisy has married a Skull and Bones Man from Yale, so rich that he brought polo ponies with him to New Haven. (I may add here that I was at Yale Law School and none of us had any polo ponies.)

The ill-gotten gains of Gatsby buy a mansion on Long Island Sound across a bay from the mansion where Daisy now lives with her staggeringly rich husband from old money, Tom Buchanan. Gatsby tries to impress Daisy so he can win her back. She does in fact fall in love with him all over again, but the story ends in tragedy as Daisy is revealed as a little creep and only Gatsby, the criminal, has any real character, too late to keep him from a grisly death. No one comes to his funeral except the narrator, Nick Carraway, really, of course, Fitzgerald (a product of Old Nassau, by the way, not of Yale).

The story has been told as a movie many times, including a languid attempt by a smug Robert Redford. But the book has always been way too big for the movie industry to replicate on the screen. The human longing is so powerfully and poetically put on the printed page that no movie has ever been able to keep up with the novel.

Until now. Baz Luhrmann, an Aussie director, has taken the book and made it bigger and better. The star is Leo DiCaprio, as good as any actor on the scene right now. Daisy is Carey Mulligan, perfect as the beautiful, empty-headed bad girl pretending to be good. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a superb Tobey Maguire. A fiendishly snobby Tom Buchanan is played perfectly by a super talent named Joel Edgerton, and the real menace in the movie comes from the gangster, Meyer Wolfsheim, played by someone named Amitabh Bachchan, and played to Oscar-winning perfection. There are no bad performers in this movie. Adelaide Clemens, an Australian talent, steals her scenes with Nick Carraway. She turns a minor part into movie star gold.

But it is the movie that is the star, the MOVING PICTURE, the wonderful parties that reek of the big dreams Gatsby had, the stupefying houses, the powerful cars, all of which speak of what the most superficial part of the American dream is. Everything is moving all of the time. By the way, contrary to what some well-meaning reviewers have written, Gatsby had contempt for the parties and for his own material goods. He wanted, simply and as trite as it is, to be loved by the “nice girl” he had met before he went off to war.

A.O. Scott, the main reviewer for the New York Times, usually an inspiration, spectacularly misunderstood what the movie was about. He recounts a key scene where Gatsby is showering Daisy with dozens of his elegant, too colorful shirts, and Daisy starts to cry with happiness. Mr. Scott, a superb writer, thinks that Daisy is crying with happiness about seeing so much cotton, linen, and silk.

Not at all. Daisy is just crying because she is so happy to have Jay Gatsby back and the dazzling shirts are no more than an artifact of the dazzling youth who was the first man ever to make love with her. The scene has nothing to do with materialism any more than a love letter has to do with the price of postage.

The blending of the glorious acting, the uniquely beautiful visuals, and the endless, spectacular movement--especially in 3D, which emphasizes the depth between the wish and the reality--and the omnipotent Fitzgerald novel, make this must viewing… as great as Gone With the Wind. Do yourself a favor. See it immediately.

I will complain about the IRS or about Benghazi some other time. For now, let me beg you: Give yourself a treat. Go see The Great Gatsby in 3D. That third dimension of depth is what the movie is all about. The depths of human longing. I have known it in love and if you have not, I think you need to work on that right now.

This movie is a killer.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.