Audacious, ostentatious and ambitious, "The Great Gatsby" is a big, raw pitching prospect of a movie. It'll throw amazing curveballs and fastballs that will leave you dazzled as they fly past -- and then hurl a few into the stands that will leave you scratching your head.
For me, the wonderment outweighed the puzzlement, though others may feel F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic book still defies cinematic adaptation after a half-dozen attempts.
The one thing that's injected in this version by director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") and his cast that was sorely missing from previous iterations is passion. Luhrmann, who co-wrote the script with Craig Pearce, seems to have taken well the lesson of the last big "Gatsby" film in 1974, which was beautiful but bloodless.
Luhrmann, known for over-the-top visual orgies and jumpy editing, mostly restrains his wilder instincts and uses his considerable craftsmanship in the service of the story, rather than just going on a bender for its own sake. Of course, he can't resist slipping in a rollicking musical number or two, but the moment doesn't linger overlong.
Fitzgerald's book, foisted by educators on an indifferent teenage audience for decades, is not so much a story of flesh-and-blood characters as a condemnation of an age. Published at the height of the Roaring '20s, it took a cynical view of the careless rich at a time when fun was flounced.
You may already know the main players. Nick Carraway, a poor young bond trader who moves to the posh Long Island enclave of the newly wealthy. Tobey Maguire does a better job than previous actors in bringing the story's narrator/voyeur to life, describing himself as "guarding other people's secrets, living both within and without" his neighbors' decadent lifestyles.
Daisy Buchanan, Nick's carefree cousin and "beautiful little fool," played by Carey Mulligan. Her husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton), is an old-money brute, who guards Daisy like a cherished relic while fooling around on her with the local mechanic's wife, Myrtle (Isla Fisher).
And Leonardo DiCaprio plays the titular Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire who owns the mansion next door to Nick's cottage, throwing lavish parties every weekend that he never attends. He surprises Nick with a rare invitation and a rarer introduction, followed by more personal overtures -- all in an attempt to ingratiate himself with Daisy, with whom he has a history.
Luhrmann and Pearce take liberties with Fitzgerald's text, moving characters and settings around freely, even introducing a framing device in a sanitarium. I think perhaps, though, they didn't go far enough. They should have jettisoned characters who only serve to deliver exposition and disappear, such as world-weary golfer Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki). And several extraneous sequences decelerate an already too-long 142 minutes.
It's a gorgeous picture, stocked with gleaming palaces and growling cars, magnificent costumes and makeup -- DiCaprio's face glows like a burnished sun -- plus glimmering CGI renditions of 1920s New York City.
Despite its unevenness, what made this "Gatsby" a success for me was the way the film brings Gatsby into clearer focus in a way other adaptations haven't managed. DiCaprio and Luhrmann pull the shroud back on Gatsby's elaborate disguise to reveal a man of desperate yearnings, who deludes himself in a quest for something pure. It's not just Daisy he's pursuing, but a vision of himself that is hopeful -- something that stands in stark contrast to the sclerotic myopia of the Buchanans of the world.
"He stood before us, concealing an incorruptible dream," Nick intones. "The Great Gatsby" is occasionally dissonant, but its message rings strong and true.