But hold them at bay. Within 20 minutes, Leonardo DiCaprio gets more screen time, the soundtrack kicks into high gear, and this "Gatsby" starts turning into something special.
The dubious opening finds the disheveled narrator to the richy-rich, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), in a sanitarium, where he's haunted by the specter of wealthy neighbor Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio). What's the antidote to chase his melancholy away? Write it down on paper, of course.
The stagey opening is off-putting and overdone, making us fret that this adaptation of Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel will swerve way off target. In fact, throw in 3-D and a Jay-Z co-produced soundtrack, and this "Gatsby" has all the potential for being a train wreck that could make that anemic 1974 version with Robert Redford seem better than it was.
Or maybe not.
After seducing us with lavish visuals (the 3-D is exceptional, the production design exquisite) but doing zilch to ornament the characters, Luhrmann gets on track and goes full-steam ahead -- taking us on a spectacular, operatic ride with DiCaprio riding shotgun.
Given the alcohol-tinged material, "Gatsby" appropriately picks up when Nick gets screaming drunk while partying with his cousin Daisy Buchanan's (Carey Mulligan)two-timin' hubby, Tom (Joel Edgerton). He is a macho millionaire currently cheating with a gas station owner's (Jason Clarke) wife, Myrtle (Isla Fisher). Anyone assigned to read "Gatsby" in high school knows these characters play pivotal roles in a clash between the haves and have-nots of 1920s America.
Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty") and Fisher ("Bachelorette") round out a terrific cast. But while Mulligan is suitably fickle and waiflike and Edgerton brutish and blustery, no one can compare to DiCaprio. As the enigmatic millionaire who gets rich by any means possible, all for the sake of love, he's spot on.
When he takes tea with old flame Daisy at Nick's cabin, he's boyish and disarmingly sweet. While hosting an outrageous party at his Disneyland-like mansion on Long Island, he's sexy and secretive. And when he realizes he can't control the course of love, he's vulnerable and shattered. He nails every note.
Speaking of notes, the soundtrack hits all the right ones. The diverse playbook features artists that range from Beyonce to Lana Del Rey -- and it couldn't be more appropriate or evocative. Best of all, the songs never upstage the material and actors, only complement and further deepen the mood.
Luhrmann is a master at mixing songs and being stylish. (His "Moulin Rouge!" remains one of the best movie musicals.) He specializes in creating gloriously alive experiences, and his production and technical team have achieved a feast for the senses.
Even after a tottering start, he bounces back to get into the spirit of Fitzgerald's novel. But it is DiCaprio who really burrows into the soul and the marrow of a classic. Luhrmann just grazes it.
'The Great Gatsby'
Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content and brief language)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Joel Edgerton
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes
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