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The Gospel of Gatsby and Draper
Image: Warner Bros.

What does the self-made man love?

He is a figure we're all familiar with, the auto-constructed man, especially as Americans. Someone from Nowhere decides that, using his inherent smarts or wits or ambition, he is going to be someone, make a difference, something like that.

And so we love stories like Kurt Warner's, the supermarket worker turned NFL legend. We love it in the stories our Presidents tell about themselves. George W. Bush, son of a President, self-proclaimed "C student," pinched pennies, with Laura's help. Obama came from a broken home, and never fully knew his father. Even Lincoln began his story in a log cabin.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby
Warner Bros.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby

We love this kind of thing, the person who comes from nothing. It tells us that anyone from anywhere can make his mark in the American landscape—that anyone can change the world.

But what's it like to be on the other end? What happens if you spend your existence making yourself, only to look at your life and realize that you hate everything about it, everyone in it, that the position you're in embodies everything you hate?

Do you want to be the self you made?

Baz Luhrmann's serviceable, if lacking interpretation of The Great Gatsby would have us believe—in endless voice-overs that either inform the audience or remove the book's subtlety, depending on your perspective—that the self-invention of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play this role) is all about Daisy. Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway, in awe: "Everything—he did it all for Daisy." Gatsby's mansion and immaculate lawn, his ridiculous riches, the parties, the lavish extravagance, was all for Daisy (Carey Mulligan). He'd met her only five years earlier, but allegedly, at that point, he made up his mind to have everything—in service of getting Daisy.

Too bad for Luhrmann, then, that we're also taken back to Jay Gatsby's youth, when he was just James Gatz, son of dirt-poor Nebraskan farmers with nothing but a wooden shack to their name. Nick's take on the situation: "Gatsby didn't consider [his parents] to be his parents; not really. He would stare out of his roof up at the stars and dream of another life." Gatsby had made up his mind—long before he met Daisy—that his own dream of himself, of who he could be, trumped any connections to people around him.

Which provides context for the temper tantrum Gatsby throws when Daisy asks him to run away with her, a scene Luhrmann handles uncertainly, as it entirely contradicts the grand sweeping Romeo + Juliet-like love story he wants to tell. But DiCaprio understands: Gatsby is upset because more than simply wanting Daisy for his own, he is pursuing a vision of who he wants to be. He loves Daisy insofar as Daisy wants to live his life, in a castle with gates imported from an old Dutch monastery, a castle that staffs a distant relative of Beethoven as its resident musician, that has a bedroom with a literal wrap-around catwalk.

Without clearly understanding this core of Fitzgerald's tale, the movie can only flounder, not sure if Gatsby's a narcissist, a hopeless romantic, or an eternal optimist. Luhrmann tries hard to convince us, but the "all for Daisy" rhetoric stretches credulity a little too much.

It was for himself. What Gatsby loves is a dream of a world, one where he is king, the chosen one, the best—and one that, incidentally and perhaps accidentally, includes Daisy.

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The Gospel of Gatsby and Draper