Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby came out this weekend, and critics have been unkind. I actually kind of liked it, but the social commentary fell flat. A common knock on the movie is that it depicts the ostentatious parties so masterfully that it seems more homage than critique. It’s a shame, really. With its 2013 release, this production of one of America’s greatest novels had a chance to shed light on one of its greatest crises: the Great Recession of 2008. Instead, its blatant pandering to millennials — the “Me Me Me Generation” — dooms its anti-materialist message. (Here’s a telling trailer.)
To his credit, Luhrmann said of his production of Gatsby coming out in the context of the Great Recession: “If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says, ‘You’ve been drunk on money,’ they’re not going to want to see it. But if you reflected it on another time, I think they’d be willing to see it.” The box office numbers will no doubt back him up. But whether people are willing to accept its message is another question. Perhaps the greatest flaw of the movie — at least as far as its social critique — is its featuring of Jay-Z as musical producer. One scene has Leonardo DiCaprio walking into a speakeasy with Nick Carraway in a slow-motion sequence P Diddy would envy. In another scene, Nick and Tom Buchanan are crossing into Manhattan and see this while Jay-Z megahit “Izzo” is playing, a clear nod to the worst of vapid hip-hop excess:
(Full disclosure, I hate Jay-Z. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of hip-hop, but in keeping with the Debbie Downer tone of this post, I often want it to be politically conscious, a la Talib Kweli.)
I’m not saying millennials will fail to see the intended critique of materialism, even if it’s poorly executed. I’m asking, will we care? For one, we’re willing participants in the superficial culture — BuzzFeed, True Blood, Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal — all great. But in terms of depth?
Meanwhile, this week Generation Y had to circle its social wagons against charges of narcissism leveled by Joel Stein, a writer for Time (and apparent left-fielder). The piece really is galling. With wages stagnating and with recent graduates struggling to find work, what are we supposed to do? All we can do, apparently — write a a pithy tumblr. Here’s my favorite, from samfetamine, which is at the same time genius and fatalistic:
It speaks volumes. We’re guiltless inheritors of an economy based on unfunded wars and phantom Wall Street transactions, and we’re powerless to do anything about it. And though our post-9/11 cynicism allows us to recognize the bullshit, we’re shackled to 20th century perceptions of prosperity that force us to ante into a stacked game. Consumer confidence is rising — we spend because that’s what we know and hope for. And if you protest the system like the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots, you’re counterculture, weird.
There’s a party of Gatsby-like proportions going on, and you’re not invited. But you damn well better wait outside for the velvet rope to move aside.
Sadly, Baz Luhrmann & Co. showed us too much party, not enough rope.
Washington Miscellanist, raining on parades since March 2013.