05/07/2013 08:43 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Good and Bad Surprises in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

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Novel? What novel? I went into Baz Luhrmann's 3-D, Jay Z-soundtracked The Great Gatsby assuming that the kindest, smartest approach would be to forget there was ever a book behind it. Surprisingly, the film is more attached to F. Scott Fitzgerald than I expected, and that turns out to be its downfall.

As he showed in Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann is a visionary, but his vision here is entirely focused on eye candy. He delivers the extravagance of Gatsby's world, the wild, colorful 1920's parties with flappers, fireworks and champagne -- the easy, shallow part. Yet he is also tethered to Fitzgerald's words, while failing to approach Gatsby's romantic, idealistic, heartbreaking soul. It might have been better if he had forgotten there was a novel, too.

The problems start with Nick Carraway, whose role as the book's narrator is justified on screen by placing him in a sanitarium -- the film's invention -- where he has been diagnosed as "morbidly alcoholic." Part of his treatment is writing about his experience of Gatsby. The conceit doesn't get in the way, but Tobey Maguire's flatly delivered voiceover does. It's Nick, of course, who tells Gatsby's story, who recalls moving into a small summer house next to Gatsby's mansion on Long island, hearing the rumors about his mysterious criminal past, and who discovers that Gatsby's spectacular life is part of his attempt to regain Nick's cousin, Daisy, now married to the brutish Tom Buchanan. Gatsby is the central figure, but the story belongs to Nick; he has to be observant and analytical, not the cipher Maguire's lackluster performance creates. (Find out about two better Nicks and two other Gatsbys here.)

You'd think the film would have bigger problems, like the hip hop music beating behind the 1920's, but that isn't such a bad idea after all. Most of the contemporary songs are used for party scenes, which are already so over-the-top that the anachronistic music becomes part of the circus. And the film mixes up its musical periods, using "Ain't Misbehavin" during a scene in the New York apartment Tom rents for his girlfriend, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) .

We've already seen a lot of that circus by the time Gatsby himself appears. And here is the film's one good surprise: Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems so stiff and wrong in the trailers, is wonderful as Gatsby. He's wonderful even though our first sight of him is laughable. At one of Gatsby's parties, a man turns to face Nick -- and the camera -- says, "I'm Gatsby," and we see fireworks explode behind him as Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" plays. Although Luhrmann surely realizes that the scene is stylized and excessive, just the way the wide-eyed Nick would have experienced it, that doesn't make it less ludicrous to watch. That is DiCaprio's only silly scene.

He gives a beautifully modulated performance, knowing just when to move from the stiffness of a man uncomfortable in the world he has tried so hard to conquer, and when to display the passionate romanticism that leads him to look so longingly at the green light across the bay on Daisy's dock, and to believe he can reinvent the past the way he reinvented himself, turning impoverished James Gatz into the rich, influential Jay Gatsby. His posture changes and his features relax when he is at ease with Daisy.

Daisy is a fairly hopeless role to begin with; she is idealized by Gatsby, but nothing very special to the rest of the world, ultimately as vapid as her husband. Carey Mulligan's Daisy doesn't even come to life with Gatsby. Joel Edgerton shrewdly doesn't overplay Tom's brutality.

Luhrmann allows what looks like bad CGI in creating the "Valley of Ashes," the shabby stretch between Long Island and Manhattan that Gatsby's bright yellow car races through. The use of 3-D is pointless. Those are surprising lapses considering that for long periods he seems to care about nothing except grand, sweeping visuals. The famous scene in which Gatsby shows Daisy his house, and she weeps over his beautiful shirts, has DiCaprio tossing shirts over a balcony at Daisy below.

But as the film heads toward its tragic end, Luhrmann becomes more insistent in his use of Nick's voiceover. On some level, Luhrmann grasps what has made The Great Gatsby so enduring: it is about Gatsby's self-invention, about his idealism and soaring romanticism, and his inevitable crash to earth. But what sounds eloquent on the page becomes too pointed on screen. In this misbegotten film, DiCaprio is left alone to try to carry the purity of the story -- an attempt as heroic and as doomed to fail as Gatsby's.