Classic 1920s jazz music plays as the film starts. Gold art deco designs fill the screen as the viewer is transported through a portal towards a green light across a harbor on a misty evening. We hear Nick Carraway in voiceover say, “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice: always try to see the best in people, he would say. As a consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, but even I have a limit.” As a white light flashes across the screen, the camera pans over a harbor towards a giant mansion in the snow. Nick continues, “Back then, all of us drank too much. The more in tune with the times we were, the more we drank, and none of us contributed anything new.” The mansion is revealed to be The Perkins Sanitarium. Inside, Nick Carraway speaks to a psychiatrist, who opens up his file. We see Nick Carraway’s diagnoses in close-up: Morbidly Alcoholic, Insomniac, Fits of Anger, Anxiety. Nick tells the psychiatrist that “Only one man was exempt from my disgust: Gatsby.” The doctor writes “Gatsby” in his notes and asks Nick if Gatsby was a friend, as Nick goes and stares out the window at the snowy scene outside. “He was the single most hopeful person I’ve ever met and am ever likely to meet again,” Nick tells him.
Nick begins to walk around the room, speaking about Gatsby, noting particularly his “sensitivity.” The psychiatrist looks puzzled as he sits beside a large fire, and asks Nick where he met Gatsby. Nick sighs and goes to the window, and tells him, “at a party in New York…in the summer of 1922.” The camera zooms out from Nick’s face as he looks out the window at the snowy day surrounding the sanitarium. Jazz music begins to play, and as the frame becomes fully white with snow, the shot shifts to a bird’s eye view of New York City. We hear a hip-hop beat come in, and see various footage of the 1920s play on the screen as a Jay-Z song plays. Nick Carraway describes how the 1920s were a hysterical time of immense wealth. “Wall Street boomed,” he says, as we see hundreds of Wall Street traders cheering. A stack of coins is shown, and then footage of a lavish party. We see performers dancing and the scene shifts to pan up the side of a large skyscraper as Nick says in voiceover, “The buildings were higher.” Then a line of women dancing appears as Nick tells us that “the morals were looser and the ban on alcohol had backfired.” We see images of liquor being bottled during the prohibition era as Nick tells us that the liquor was cheaper at this time. We see a plane dive-bombing downwards from the sky, as the camera scales the side of a skyscraper down towards the street. We see Nick Carraway look up towards the camera, as the shot freezes and an auto-tuned vocal plays; Nick is just arriving in New York to start a job as a Wall Street trader. We then see a bird’s eye view of the Long Island coastline, as Nick narrates that he lived at West Egg, “in a forgotten groundskeeper’s cottage squeezed among the mansions of the newly rich.” We see the quaint cottage, as Nick gets out of a car and smiles at his new home. We see Nick touching a series of books on “Credit, Banking, and Investments.” He eventually picks one up and looks at it. When he turns the radio up, we hear news of the stock market, as the shot shifts to a bustling office, Nick at a desk speaking to a client on the phone, advising them on their investments.
Nick is back in his cottage, as he narrates in voiceover: “At Yale I dreamed of being a writer, but I gave all that up.” He goes out on the porch of his house and looks out at the sunny day, announcing that he planned to spend the summer studying finance. As he sits on his porch and begins to read his book, Nick looks over at the beach, where a throng of giggling girls in bathing suits jump out of a car and motion for him to follow them. He peers over the side of the deck, watching them run towards the mansion next door. As he narrates, “…beyond the walls of that colossal castle, owned by a gentleman I had not yet met, named Gatsby,” we see a hand pulling back a curtain from inside the mansion. Nick looks up at the window and sees Gatsby in the window, looking down at him, slightly obscured. The scene shifts back to the snowy sanatarium, as Nick confirms to the doctor that Gatsby was his neighbor. Nick then tells the doctor that his story actually began when he went to dinner at the home of his cousin, Daisy Buchanan. “She lived across the bay, in old money East Egg,” Nick narrates, as the camera epically flies through the sail of a nearby ship, and we suddenly see the well-trimmed gardens and imposing columns of a mansion on the water. “Her husband was heir to one of America’s wealthiest families,” Nick tells us, as the camera descends on a horseback rider galloping through the central garden of the estate. The man on horseback swings at a golf ball and sends it flying, as Nick tells us Daisy’s husband’s name: Tom Buchanan. Suddenly we see an elegant white phone ringing, which someone picks up. Outside again, Tom Buchanan jumps off his horse, as Nick narrates that they knew each other at Yale, where Tom had been a “sporting star.” Tom throws a golf club to a black servant and climbs the stone steps of the estate towards the house. Nick continues to narrate: “Now his glory days were behind him and he contented himself with…other affairs.” Tom answers the phone that was ringing and tells a woman on the other end—with whom he is having an affair—“I thought I told you not to call me here.” Nick waves to him, and Tom greets him with a whip of his towel, calling him “Shakespeare” and shaking his hand.
The two men walk into the house. Tom asks Nick how his “great American novel” is coming, and Nick tells him that he is now selling bonds. Tom tells him that he wants to go into town with him later, to “catch up with the wolf pack,” and when Nick tells him that he cannot because of work, Tom won’t take no for an answer. In a lavish hallway filled with medals and trophies, Tom brags about his sporting accomplishments as an undergraduate, pointing to a large trophy. Tom throws a football at Nick aggressively, who catches it hesitantly. Tom then runs towards Nick, holding him and pushing him through a set of double doors into a breezy room with giant white curtains. The curtains billow in the wind, and Nick sees an ornately sparkling chandelier hanging above. Nick sees a woman’s hand rise from the couch nearby, and sees the silhouettes of giggling, elegant female figures through the billowing curtains. A woman kicks up her high-heeled shoes, as Tom bellows and runs to close the windows. We see the room from above, a giant white and red sitting area, as Tom closes the windows and comes back into the room, pulling back curtains.
The woman’s hand comes up over the side of the sofa and waves at Nick as we hear Daisy say, “Is that you my lovely?” Daisy emerges from behind the couch. We hear Nick in voiceover say, “Daisy Buchanan, the golden girl. Breathless warmth flowed from her, a promise that there was no one else she so wanted to see.” She smiles at her cousin and asks if anyone misses her in Chicago. “At least a dozen people send their love,” Nick says, to which Daisy responds, sardonically, “How gorgeous.” As the shot moves outward, we see another woman on the sofa with Daisy. As Tom takes a post behind the bar, Nick exaggeratedly tells Daisy how much they miss her in Chicago, and she grabs his hand, telling him how happy that makes her. Daisy then pulls him over the side of the couch and onto the floor beside it, introducing him to Jordan Baker, “a very famous golfer.” We hear Nick in voiceover, as he says, “She was the most frightening person I’d ever seen, but I enjoyed looking at her.” As Nick extends his hand to shake Jordan’s, she stands, telling him that she’s been lying on the sofa for a long time. Tom brings Nick a drink and interrogates him about his new home in the “social climbing, new money” area of West Egg. Jordan looks at Nick skeptically, and Nick assures him that he lives in a “shack” for 80 a month. When Nick tells them that he doesn’t know anyone in West Egg, Jordan turns around abruptly, saying, “Well, you must know Gatsby.” Daisy is surprised to hear the name Gatsby, and repeats it, which intrigues Nick and seems to distress Tom, who grimaces from his chair. “What Gatsby?” asks Daisy, before being interrupted by a waiter who announces that a meal is being served. A number of footmen open the doors of the room, and wind once again streams into the room, as Nick looks at Daisy, who seems lost in thought.
In a grand dining hall, waiters pull out chairs, as Daisy, Jordan, Tom, and Nick all sit down to dinner. A montage of smalltalk begins, and we hear snippets of the dinner conversation, interspersed with shots of the dining table from above. At one point, Daisy tells Nick that she heard a rumor that he was engaged to a woman, but he tells her it was a lie, because he is too poor. As Jordan makes an irreverent joke, Nick jokingly turns to Daisy and tells her, “You’re making me feel uncivilized, Daisy.” She smiles at him, and they are interrupted by Tom, who goes on a rant about the end of civilization. He begins to speak about a book called The Rise of the Colored Empire, launching into a racist speech about the uprising of non-white races. Daisy looks towards the ceiling uncomfortably, and Jordan rolls her eyes, beginning to sip her drink. Rising, Tom says that the white race needs to keep those other races in check, before kissing Daisy’s head. Nick looks uncomfortable. Daisy has a pained expression on her face, as they are interrupted by a ringing telephone. A cigar hanging out of his mouth, Tom looks over at the telephone. When the butler announces that it is “Mr. Wilson from the garage,” Tom excuses himself, closing the doors behind him as he leaves the room. Daisy looks embarrassed and pained, before abruptly excusing herself and following Tom. Nick tries to lift the mood by asking Jordan about Gatsby. Jordan shushes him, eavesdropping on Daisy and Tom, who begin to quarrel. Spying on them, Jordan informs Nick that “Tom’s got some woman in New York.” The couple comes back into the room briskly, and Daisy tells Nick that she loves seeing him at her dinner table. “You remind me of a rose,” she says to him. Tom interrupts her to tell Nick that they have to go to the Yale Club. Nick doesn’t want to go, and Daisy is disappointed to lose her cousin for the evening. The phone rings again, which makes everyone uneasy.
The scene transitions to Nick and Daisy walking outside, as three footmen open three French doors simultaneously. Daisy laments the alienating elements of her privilege, confiding in him that she’s seen and done just about everything, and that it has made her cynical. Nick asks Daisy about her daughter, Pammy. We see Tom spying on Daisy and Nick from afar as Daisy confesses to Nick, “When she was born, Tom was God-knows-where.” Looking over her shoulder, Daisy looks at Tom, who stands in a doorway. When she turns back to Nick she continues, “…with God-knows-who, and I asked the nurse if it was a boy or a girl. And she said it was a girl, and I wept. I’m glad it’s a girl, and I hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl in this world can be: a beautiful little fool.” Nick and Daisy stare out at the water, and Daisy says, “All the bright precious things fade so fast, and they don’t come back,” as the camera zooms quickly across the water, past the green light at the Buchanan’s mooring, all the way to West Egg.
The camera zooms towards Gatsby’s palatial mansion, and we see a figure, probably Gatsby, on his dock. As a flash of white light overtakes the screen, we are then transported to Nick’s driveway as Nick arrives home and looks over at Gatsby’s residence. He notices the figure on the dock, and slowly makes his way towards it. The figure is indeed Gatsby, who we see stretching out his hand towards the green light of the Buchanan dock across the harbor. The scene transitions to show Nick at the sanitarium touching the window pane, and saying to himself, “The green light.” When the doctor rises, Nick tells him, “i don’t want to talk about it,” to which the doctor advises him, “Then write about it.” The doctor assures Nick that he once told him that writing brought him solace. Nick remains unconvinced, saying that he “wasn’t any good” as a writer. The doctor smiles and tells Nick that no one has to read it, but it could be a therapeutic process for him. Nick looks puzzled, before asking the doctor what he might write about. The doctor tells him he could write about anything, “a memory…a place…” “A place,” Nick repeats, looking at the empty page the doctor has laid out and imagining a group of men working.
We see Nick writing furiously in a notebook, and he says to himself, “The Valley of Ashes was a grotesque place.” The words themselves are projected across the screen and we see the Valley of Ashes, with a group of men shoveling ashes in the fog. Nick explains that it is “New York’s dumping ground, halfway between West Egg and the city, where the burnt out coal that powered the booming golden city was discarded by men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” We see various men, covered in coal and ashes, in a gray town. We see Nick looking through a train window, as we are transported back into the past. He stares at a large billboard with a fading and peeling advertisement for spectacles on it. Nick says of the billboard, “This fantastic farm was ever watched by Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, a forgotten oculist whose eyes brooded over it all like the eyes of God.”
Inside the train car, we see Nick and Tom, as Nick narrates that while Tom invited him to the Yale Club, they ended up in the Valley of Ashes instead. Tom abruptly pulls Nick off the train when it stops in the Valley of Ashes, much to Nick’s surprise. “Trust me!” he tells Nick, yanking him off the train. Nick jumps off the train to follow Tom, who leads him towards the depressing town. The two men rush past a mechanic named Wilson, who crouches beside a car and is covered in ashes. Wilson asks Tom when he’s going to sell him his car, and Tom tells him that he will send him the car as soon as his guy is done working on it. Meanwhile, a woman, Wilson’s wife, Myrtle, descends the staircase from above. She has a thick accent and a rough-around-the-edges demeanor. She orders Wilson to get a chair, then looks to Tom lovingly. Nick watches, and realizes that this is the woman with whom Tom is having an affair. Myrtle comes down the stairs and greets Tom, who keeps an eye on Wilson as they start to embrace. When Tom introduces Nick to Myrtle as a writer, she distractedly shakes his hand, as Nick corrects him that he’s actually in bonds. Tom hands Myrtle some money and instructs her to get on the next train, while Wilson looks for a chair inside. Wilson asks Tom if he wants a soda, but Tom tells him he’s fine, while Nick watches everything uncomfortably. When Tom instructs Myrtle to call her sister to be Nick’s companion, Nick resists the offer, which makes Myrtle scowl. “You’re going to embarrass Myrtle,” Tom tells Nick, and Nick looks overwhelmed by the situation he’s found himself in.
The scene shifts abruptly to a terrier eating a biscuit off a plate in what is revealed to be an extravagant apartment in New York City. Nick sits nearby, watching uncomfortably as the terrier chews. The apartment is almost entirely red and we can hear Tom and Myrtle having intercourse in the adjoining room, which startles the terrier and makes Nick exceedingly uncomfortable. The dog squeaks and Nick rises to get his hat as the thumping of the bed in the adjoining room gets louder and louder. When Nick opens the door, a woman with heavy eye makeup and a teal outfit leans against the doorframe, introducing herself as Catherine, Myrtle’s sister. “Ain’t we having a party?” she asks, and pushes Nick back into the room, who says he needs to go home. As Nick backs out of the room, he is greeted by two more party guests, a man and a woman, as the dog squeals on the chair. Catherine tries to seduce Nick, as the second female guest calls to Myrtle, and we see a black jazz musician playing the trumpet on a nearby fire escape. Myrtle emerges from the bedroom and greets the other woman enthusiastically. As Nick attempts to leave, Tom emerges from the bedroom and instructs Myrtle to “get everyone a drink before they fall asleep.” Nick tries to explain that he has to go, but Tom stops him and tells him he needs to talk to Catherine. When Nick tells him he feels uncomfortable at the party, and that he feels disloyal to his cousin, Daisy, Tom tells him, “Look Nick, I know you like to watch, I remember that from college.” When Nick protests, Tom invites Nick to stay, urging him to “play ball” instead of just watch from the sidelines. The other party guests also encourage him to stay, and so he does.
Tom carries Nick back into the room, and Catherine pushes him down onto the couch. She sits beside him and the other man at the party starts to take Nick’s picture. Tom tells everyone that Nick is artistic also, which Nick laughs off—“I write a little bit,” he says. When Nick tells Catherine that he lives in West Egg, she tells him she recently went to a party at Gatsby’s house, and asks Nick if he knows him. “I live right next door to him,” says Nick, intrigued. Conspiratorially, Catherine tells him that Gatsby is a “cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm’s.” Tom interrupts them and asks the man with the camera to take a picture of him spanking Myrtle, and Myrtle laughs and swats him away. Catherine now sits on Nick’s lap and tells him that neither Tom nor Myrtle like their spouses. When Tom offers Catherine a drink, she passes and takes out a pill for anxiety. When Nick says he doesn’t want a pill, Catherine abruptly puts the pill in her mouth and kisses him, forcing the pill down his throat. Tom watches nearby, as Nick laughs at having been forcibly given the drug.
We see Tom at the sanatarium writing down what happened in his journal—“I had been drunk just twice in my life, and the second time was that afternoon”—and the scene flashes back to Catherine forcing more alcohol on Nick. Distorted dance music plays as Nick becomes increasingly drunk. Tom and Myrtle dance, and Catherine dances seductively in front of Nick. The partygoers pose on the couch for a picture taken by Chester, the photographer. Tom opens a champagne bottle and sprays it all over everyone as rap music plays. Someone busts open a pillow and feathers go flying everywhere. We see the black trumpeter on his fire escape playing wildly. Back in the apartment, the partygoers go wild. Feathers fly everywhere, people pick each other up, more and more champagne is sprayed. Nick gets drunker and drunker as the festivities get more and more raucous. From the couch, Nick watches Myrtle dance, in a daze. We see the trumpet player again, playing outside, as day transitions into night.
In voiceover, Nick says, “That night, in the hidden flat that Tom kept for Myrtle, we were buoyed by a sort of chemical madness, a willingness of the heart that burst thunderously upon us all.” Nick looks up and sees partygoers in various states of undress, and the perspective of the camera shifts rapidly from standing level to from above. “This is better than the Yale Club,” slurs Nick, after narrating that he was starting to like New York. A man bursts yet another champagne bottle and pours it maniacally into his mouth. We see a close-up of Nick’s face as he witnesses the wreckage of the party, and wipes his eyes. A couple rolls around on a nearby bed, and Nick walks towards the window, and looks across at a nearby building where a black woman leans out her window. He then sees the man playing the trumpet, before looking at the street below. He sees a man down on the street, looking up at the window. The man is Nick himself, staring up at the party. The two Nicks stare at one another, as Nick muses, “I was within and without.”
We see Nick’s face set against a wall of apartments that he looks at, and different windows enlarge as Nick gazes at each of them. When he wanders back into the room, he touches the face of a passed-out partygoer. Tom and Myrtle come charging into the room—Tom is yelling at Myrtle for saying Daisy’s name aloud. When she defies him, he hits her, hard, across the face, and we see her fall in slow motion, before the camera abruptly shifts to show the trumpet player outside. Tom climbs out onto the fire escape as the camera zooms out from the window, and we see Myrtle’s friends coming to her aid. She is weeping and telling Tom he is crazy. The camera zooms out rapidly, showing the immense scale and activity of New York City, lit up at night. Tom awakens in a daze the following morning on the front porch of his cottage, unsure how he got home. From his window above, we see Gatsby open his curtain from behind, with a cigarette in his mouth, and look down at Nick. Nick narrates that he awoke with the “distinctly uneasy feeling that Gatsby was watching me.”
The scene shifts to show a piece of paper on which Nick has written this account. We are once again in the doctor’s office, and Nick is sharing his writing with the doctor. “Watching you?” asks the doctor, to which Nick replies, “Yes, Gatsby was always watching me.” When the doctor asks him how he knew that Gatsby was always watching him, Nick informs him that he received an invitation to a party at Gatsby’s mansion soon after. We see Nick walking towards the mansion, as he narrates, “I was the only one, by which I mean no one ever received an actual invitation to Gatsby’s.” As he says this, we see a servant hold up an invitation being presented by another servant on Nick’s front porch. Nick looks at the invitation as he approaches the house. “The rest of New York simply came, uninvited,” he says, and we see a number of cars pull up to Gatsby’s house, filled with raucous partygoers.
We then see Gatsby’s mansion, more like a castle, a gigantic monstrosity flooding with people for one of his weekend parties. A car speeds up to the front door and a number of ornately dressed people get out, as Nick turns to look. “This kaleidoscopic carnival spilled through Gatsby’s door,” Nick narrates. He holds up an invitation to show a servant, but quickly realizes how unnecessary that is, as throngs of party guests flood through the door. Nick gets caught in the crowd and ushered down the hall, towards a room with a feather-covered performer. The camera shows an elaborate crystal chandelier hanging above, as an intense dance beat begins. We see an eccentric man playing a giant organ, and a flamboyant man flanked by two women doing a choreographed dance. A circular pool outside is filled with swimmers and surrounded by party guests. Nick smiles at the ornate party, as a woman swings by on a trapeze. Waiters whiz by with trays full of martinis and cocktails, as Nick notes a famous billionaire coming down the stairs flanked by women. Outside, a row of women cross their legs sitting on Gatsby’s beach. Nick then sees his boss, Walter Chase, losing money at roulette. We see two women from above, who stare up gleefully at the camera, as Nick narrates, “Gossip columnists alongside gangsters and governors exchanging telephone numbers.” A film star of the time is shown, then a Broadway director smoking a cigar, then a little person who is a “morality protector,” then a gang of “high school defectors.” Finally, Nick introduces the unusual organist, who plays furiously and is described as a “dubious descendant of Beethoven.” We see the pool from above as the unmistakably modern dance beat plays, and Nick smiles at other party guests.
Nick asks the bartender where he might be able to find Gatsby. The bartender mysteriously tells him that he has never seen Mr. Gatsby, and that no one has. Nick looks around, confused, and grabs a martini. “Alone and embarrassed, I decided to get roaring drunk,” he narrates. He sips a martini as the flamboyant man and two dancers dance nearby. Thousands of people file through the halls, and we see Jordan Baker walking slowly through the crowd. As the song ends, Jordan greets Nick, taking off her hat and extending her hand. She leads him down the stairs, and when Nick asks who Gatsby is, a man nearby turns around to inform Nick that Gatsby was “a German spy during the war.” Jordan introduces the man, but they are interrupted by another man who insists that Gatsby is “the Kaiser’s assassin.” A woman passerby, whispers, “I heard her killed a man once.” No one can agree who Gatsby is, but they can all agree that he is very wealthy. Nick asks Jordan if Gatsby actually killed a man, and she proposes they find him so Nick can ask in person. As Nick follows Jordan into the next room, a performer named Gilda Gray is introduced, and she dances to the cheers of the audience. The room erupts into a jubilant updated version of the Charleston.
Nick and Jordan ascend the main staircase, and look down at the party, where guests dance vigorously. Jordan beckons Nick to follow her, as the camera zooms out on the whole party. Upstairs, Jordan and Nick play a game in which Jordan pretends to be Gatsby, as they burst into a private library. “You won’t find him,” says an older man holding a book above them. Nick and Jordan are both startled to have been watched, as the older man tells them, “This house, and everyone in it, are all part of an elaborate disguise.” Yet again, we see throngs of party guests dancing outside. Back in the library, the older man assures Jordan and Nick that Gatsby doesn’t exist. “Phooey! I’ve met him,” Jordan says, as the older man hands them each a martini. The older man still doesn’t think Gatsby exists, but Jordan doesn’t care, as he throws large parties. She says, “Large parties are so private. Small parties, there’s hardly any privacy.” Nick agrees and looks out the window at the now confetti-filled party. “What’s all this for?” he asks. “That, my dear fellow, is the question,” replies the old man, and they all look out at the proceedings.
From the start, Baz Luhrmann uses his typically larger-than-life visual palette to illuminate the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. The harbor, the snow, the green light, the mansions, the parties, indeed the entire visual landscape is stunning and lavish, almost epic. Even Nick’s modest caretaker’s cottage takes on a mythic luster. While the story takes place in a particular, carefully-realized historical world, Luhrmann’s whimsical touch makes it feel like a fairy tale. Both the score and the visuals are extremely dramatic, and the settings have a theatrical, sumptuous quality. Luhrmann’s colorful aesthetic has the effect of immersing the audience in his aesthetic vision. One cannot help but be taken in by the visuals of the film. When Nick is pushed into a room where he finds his cousin, Daisy, the white curtains that blow in the wind are gigantic; the mansion is not just a mansion, but a theatrical interpretation of the ways that a lavish mansion makes its inhabitant feel. At times the visuals and the sounds become anachronistic, with elements of contemporary culture injected into the proceedings. As we see New York City from above, a modern hip-hop beat begins to play. The musical choice is at odds with the 1920s setting, and yet it serves to bring the audience into an atmosphere of parties, extreme wealth, and musical innovation. These anachronisms only serve to immerse the viewer more in Luhrmann’s vision.
The over-the-top and lavish nature of the design of the film has the effect of inviting the audience into a cinematic experience, but it also has a thematic effect, in that it positions the viewer in the over-the-top wealth of the 1920s, in which the film takes place. The epic depictions of wealth are a feast for the eyes and ears, but they also serve to communicate just how decadent the world of the characters is, and show that the wealthy worlds that Nick Carraway finds himself in are truly over-the-top. While Luhrmann’s visuals impress, they also repel; they are so over-the-top that one can feel overwhelmed by kitsch and gaudiness. Gaudiness, however, feels true to the plot of the film, which ambivalently investigates the decadence of wealth, its pitfalls, its delusions, its excess, and its mania. While parties are depicted as fun and incredible visual feasts, they are also unhinged and chaotic. Additionally, the anachronistic elements, such as the hip-hop score, align our modern musical landscape with the historical introduction of jazz into the popular culture in the 1920s. Luhrmann presents a straightforward—if simplistic—account of history, but he also imbues that account with a playful disregard for minute accuracy. The film does not show the 1920s as they were as much as it gives the impression of the 1920s, to make the viewer feel as though they understand them and can find parallels between the contemporary moment and then.
In the beginning of Luhrmann’s fairy tale film, we are introduced to the time and place of the film, and also to our main characters. When we first meet Nick, he is weary and unwell, holed up in a sanatarium, diagnosed with alcoholism and anxiety, and clearly traumatized by the events of his life. He speaks cynically about the world, but there is one person whom he still admires, Gatsby. When we look back at Nick’s arrival in Long Island, he is portrayed as a bright-eyed, impressionable observer, a one-time aspiring writer who has decided instead to try his luck at the stock market. The titular Gatsby is at first portrayed as a complete enigma, a man who has benefitted from the extremities of wealth, cloistered away in a grand castle, shrouded by a curtain. Tom Buchanan is a spoiled, misbehaved, bigoted, and dominant presence, all bluster and macho bravado. Daisy, his wife, is portrayed as fragile, innocent, elegant, and kind-hearted.
Just as the visual palette of the film is bold and broad, so too are the characterizations. While the characters are complex and full, they are also depicted as archetypes. Nick is the perfect example of an innocent protagonist, open and impressionable, connecting all the other characters through his understanding alliance with each of them. While he has left writing behind in favor of selling bonds, his temperament is unmistakably writerly, as he plays the role of observer more than participant. Gatsby is the archetype of a rich eccentric in the beginning of the film, completely unknown and mysterious. Tom represents a dominant machismo that is portrayed in a cartoonish way. He brags about his glory days as an undergraduate sportsman, carries on extramarital affairs without remorse, and tackles Nick through double doors. He is an impulsive brute, a privileged man-child. Daisy, too, is a quintessential lover, charming, but deeply feeling, bright, but fragile and disillusioned. Just as the visual and sonic landscape of the film takes on a technicolor exaggeration, the performances are also exaggerated.
While all of the main characters are white, race factors into the thematics of the film, if somewhat indirectly. The main anachronism used in the beginning of the film is the use of a Jay-Z rap on the soundtrack as images of New York City in the 1920s are shown. In this way, a parallel is made between the “jazz age,”—in which white Americans were adopting the styles and aesthetics of black culture (specifically jazz music, a historically black genre)—and the contemporary culture at the time the film was made when hip-hop is a ubiquitous soundtrack for partying. In this beginning part of the film, black characters are featured but never speak. There are black servants at the Buchanan estate, and later, at Myrtle’s New York apartment, a black man plays the trumpet on a nearby fire escape, virtually underscoring the debauched party taking place. When Nick looks out the window towards the end of the party, he sees a black women leaning out her window. Black characters are shown often, and the party era in which the film takes place is often obliquely referenced as in relation to jazz and black culture. Finally, Tom is an outspoken racist. At dinner with Nick, Daisy, and Jordan, he goes on what appears to be a typical rant against the uprising of the non-white races, and stresses that the “dominant race” must suppress those uprisings. Tom represents not only old American wealth, but also the racism that accompanies that privilege. Tom is not only skeptical of new money, but also of shifting political tides, and increased freedom for non-white races. Thus, in addition to its candy colored art direction and fairy-tale splendor, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby emphasizes some of the darker sociopolitical elements of Fitzgerald’s original novel, such as Tom Buchanan’s hostile racism.
Another important element of the beginning of the film is the particular way it chooses to frame its adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. While the early plot points of the film are relayed to a doctor in a sanatarium, the doctor eventually urges Nick to write down the events of the past, in hopes that it will bring him solace. Fitzgerald’s original novel is written as though from the perspective of Nick Carraway writing retrospectively about the events of his life, but there is no reference to a sanatarium (although Fitzgerald himself suffered frequently from alcoholism). By explicating the task of writing as a therapeutic practice encouraged by a doctor, Baz Luhrmann gives an even stronger motive to Nick Carraway’s narration. In this film adaptation, Carraway is not only the narrator because he is the most observant character, but also because his mental health depends on it.