Baz Luhrmann, Blood Libel and a Vaguely Jewish Gatsby

In Luhrmann's film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, one of literature's most lazily sketched anti-Semitic caricatures is deftly played by ... a Bollywood idol?

There is nothing subtle about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic "The Great Gatsby." Nothing, that is, apart from a Bollywood idol’s performance as Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish mobster and business partner of Jay Gatsby.

The Twenties were famously roaring, and this movie’s jangly, anachronistic score is as oppressively in-your-face as its 3-D montages in which snowflakes, banknotes and pearls fly from the screen. Intentionally and often unintentionally, it leaves you nauseated by opulent extravagance.

For those who weren’t assigned the novel in high school, "The Great Gatsby" tells an elegiac tale of riches, romance and mortality. It’s set over the course of a 1920s summer on Long Island, New York’s gilded playground, where an enigmatic millionaire named Gatsby throws wild parties in the hopes that Daisy Buchanan, a girl from his past, will wander in. Daisy, as it happens, lives just across the bay with her husband Tom, a flush, blue-blooded polo player partial to racial supremacist bunkum. It’s all told in flashback by Nick Carraway, who is Daisy’s cousin and Gatsby’s neighbor.

While the heady excesses of the novel entrance, its sentences have a cool, mesmerizing polish that’s utterly lost in the hot, cartoonish mess that Luhrmann has choreographed. When Leonardo DiCaprio reveals himself as the mysterious Gatsby, for instance, there’s a crescendoing rendition of "Rhapsody in Blue," a flock of tinsel butterflies, fireworks and fountains arcing into the night sky.

While it’s a nice antidote to pious period adaptations, so much hedonism fast becomes desensitizing. Maybe that’s why the story’s symbolism has been dealt with so heavy-handedly. Everything is spelled out in the most literal sense: letters cascade across the screen, coalescing into adjectives; choice sentences float, handwritten, as they’re intoned by Tobey Maguire playing Nick.

It’s strange, then, to find actor Amitabh Bachchan, a legend in his native India, bringing such understated dignity to the role of Wolfsheim, who on the page is one of literature's most lazily sketched anti-Semitic caricatures. Fitzgerald conjures up a tiny-eyed, large-headed, thickly-accented man who is mostly nose. This “tragic” nose has unkempt nostril hair and is so “expressive” that Nick claims it “flashed at me indignantly” at one point. More gratuitously still, Wolfsheim wears cufflinks made from human molars, hinting at cannibalism or perhaps just that hoary hate staple, the blood libel. (In the movie, the cufflinks, oddly, become a tiepin.)

The casting of Bachchan dilutes some of the role’s unpleasantness – Wolfsheim is a gangster, but he brings with him an understated majesty. His name still fixes his ethnicity, though, and just in case, here’s Tom to dub him “a little kike.” That word, incidentally, doesn’t appear in the novel, but then Luhrmann’s Tom, played by Joel Edgerton, is a nastier piece of work. To underscore his bigotry, his polo kit includes a black shirt and tall leather boots, and his moustache looks almost Hitlerian.

There is a theory – and I use that word loosely – that Gatsby himself is Jewish. He’s changed his name from James Gatz, and though he’s rumored to be German, many assimilated German Jews identified wholly as such into the 1930s. He’s also lived in many capitals in Europe, he says.

Watching DiCaprio effectively nixes the idea, though the text makes it pretty clear as well that Gatsby is not Jewish. James Gatz was born in North Dakota, surely one of the least Jewish states in America. And on a farm, no less. But just think about that famous scene where he’s manically tossing all his beautiful tailored shirts in the air – what nice Jewish boy would disrespect schmutter so?

And yet Gatsby does embody, in the abstract at least, a kind of Jewish archetype created by the forces of fate and history: a self-made wanderer who has uprooted and reinvented himself, moving through a world in which he can pass, but which will never fully accept him. As Tom puts it: “We were born different. It’s in our blood.”

DiCaprio’s Gatsby isn’t oblivious to this, even if his vulnerability is played somewhat for laughs. (“You think it’s too much?” he asks, having filled Nick’s cramped cottage with hothouse orchids and tiered cakes in advance of a visit from Carey Mulligan as Daisy.)

His attempts to become someone else – someone other than the person he was born – give his story poignant meaning for any immigrant. Self-invention is a minefield, and it’s the tiniest details that betray Gatsby again and again. For all that he calls people “old sport,” nobody offers him any kind of fond term of address in return. Nobody except Wolfsheim. To Wolfsheim – at least in Luhrmann’s version – he is “my boy.”