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A gaudy digital 3-D adaptation of The Great Gatsby with a soundtrack by Jay-Z could easily be the punch line to a million bad jokes about the sad state of modern American culture. But then, The Great Gatsby was in its own way the punch line to the sad state of American culture in the 1920s, which means Baz Luhrmann's hundred-million-dollar-plus adaptation of the book makes a little more sense. And at least every goddamned red cent that Luhrmann spent is on-screen here—Gatsby's opulent parties that open the picture are as over-the-top and impossibly extravagant as you'd expect, since they're directed by the guy who brought you Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann uses the 3-D to its utmost, too, adding depth and enlivening every visual detail; this is one of those rare experiences where it's worth shelling out the extra cash for the 3-D version.)
The basics of the book are all here. Tobey Maguire stars as the creepy Nick Carraway, the passive voyeur who lives to tell the tale. "Nicky, I know you like to watch," someone tells Carraway early in Gatsby, and Maguire's twisted smile in response perfectly brings out the innate not-rightness of someone who's happy to set his married cousin up with his enigmatic wealthy neighbor without much moral introspection whatsoever. Carraway inserts himself into the relationship of Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan, as insanely watchable as ever) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, more about him later) with aplomb. And Gatsby needs Carraway there, too, as a sounding board or maybe just as a witness. Daisy's husband, Tom (Joel Edgerton, exquisitely all raw nerves), isn't quite dumb enough to not notice that something's going on. As in the book, terrible things happen.
The one thing that Luhrmann instinctually understands is that The Great Gatsby is packed with creepiness. Carraway leers on the outside, looking in. Gatsby treats Daisy like a human doll, and his enormous mansion is nothing so much as a gigantic time machine with which he plans to remake the universe in his own image. Tom toys with the lives of the poor like a petulant, horny Greek god. And the modern American God is in there, too, represented as a pair of eyes on an abandoned billboard. "God sees everything," we are told a few times by characters lost in clouds of their own boozy breath. That's because God is creepy. And then you turn around and see a theater full of people wearing cheap sunglasses staring raptly at a screen, sometimes reaching their hands out to touch the three-dimensional images that don't really exist in front of them, like Gatsby standing on a pier trying to capture a distant green light in his hand, and Luhrmann's obvious point grabs you by the nose and screams in your ear. This is America. We're all creeps.
Gatsby is not a subtle movie—you get the sense that Luhrmann would spit and screech and hide behind his black velour cape if you ever even mentioned the word "subtle" in his presence—but it's not a bad movie, either. If you resign yourself to the inevitable fact that not even half of the book's intricacies survive the adaptation, you can relax and enjoy what did make it to the screen. And there's a lot to enjoy.
Specifically, you can bask in the delight that is Leonardo DiCaprio, who, with the one-two punch of his villainous turn in Django Unchained and his self-aware, puffed-up performance as Gatsby, is doing the best work of his career right now. The triad of DiCaprio, Maguire, and Mulligan make the first time their characters are all under one roof—the world's most uncasual casual tea party—into a brilliant comedic scene. Later, the tension erupts in a most satisfying manner as Gatsby (in a silly but fabulous powder-pink suit) and Tom go at each other like preening boys on a playground. It's less an argument about a love triangle and more a pissing contest between old money versus new. These are smart performances that encourage you to forgive the occasional mistake, like Luhrmann's unfortunate failure to script Daisy out to a full three dimensions, or a stupid effect where words swirl around the screen as Carraway bangs on his typewriter, or a severely diminished supporting cast.
Some will go see The Great Gatsby just so they can complain about it. I'm sure someone will tear the soundtrack to shreds, even though it's not overdone at all—a few Jay-Z couplets tossed in here and there to accentuate the excess, a zippy little "Crazy in Love" cover thrown on top of a scene for a lightening effect—and scores of Gatsby purists are doubtlessly squirming in anticipation of pulling the movie apart to demonstrate their love of the text. But Shakespeare is reinvented on a daily basis all over the world; surely Fitzgerald's sturdy little book can withstand the weight of a gilded elephant dancing around on it for a while? It is, after all, a hell of a show.