1. I'm confused at to what Baz Luhrmann, the crazy over-the-top director of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, would possibly want with The Great Gatsby. Well, I see why he might like it as a theoretical challenge: What ambitious filmmaker (and Luhrmann is nothing if not ambitious) wouldn't want to try to solve the Gatsby mystery? (Every Gatsby movie has been terrible.) And I see why he'd want to recreate the Roaring Twenties through set design and CGI: The costumes alone could keep him occupied for months. But I have no idea why he'd want to do Gatsby. He seems to lack even a passing understanding of what the book is about. He has zero interest in class struggle, or the doom of the American Dream, or the cruel thoughtlessness of the privileged. Luhrmann has said in an interview that he was drawn to Gatsby because, in part, he loves stories about ill-fated lovers. The Great Gatsby is many things, but one thing it sure as hell isn't about is ill-fated lovers.
2. Luhrmann is a firm hand in the early scenes, with all the lavish parties and wretched excess of a plush, decadent era. His Gatsby mansion is breathtaking—it looks like a floating castle—and the scenes involving all his wild soirees have a fun, pulsating intensity. (Scoring these new money flapper fetes with Jay-Z and Lana Del Rey does seem to fit the cultural moment.) The problem, of course, is that Luhrmann doesn't understand—or, perhaps more accurately, care—that such garish indulgence is what Fitzgerald was trying to upend, not celebrate. Luhrmann is only at home when he's portraying excess. Adapting Gatsby just so you can recreate the party scenes is like remaking Born on the Fourth of July for the war scenes. Luhrmann has a knack for missing the point.
3. This couldn't be more clear than during the scenes between Gatsby and his beloved Daisy, which are all soft-focused and romantic, like they're Romeo and Juliet rather than a deluded cursed megalomaniacal social climber and a spoiled old-money brat who just wants everything at no cost to her. Luhrmann just doesn't get the Gatsby-Daisy relationship—or the lack thereof—and the whole second half of the movie collapses once people start doing more talking than dancing. The scene in which Daisy is confronted by both Gatsby and her husband Tom Buchanan is incompetently staged, as if Luhrmann's camera didn't know what to do with itself if it weren't leaping and diving from the top of a chandelier. The story and the characters are just excuses for Luhrmann's visual gigantism. The Great Gatsby, for cripes sake.
4. A lot of the fascination in a project like this comes from the casting, and Luhrmann shoots about 50 percent on that. I'll confess that the appeal of an actor like Tobey Maguire has always been a bit lost on me; he looks so modern and callow and fake that I never quite buy him in anything. (At least not since Wonder Boys. That's the issue with Maguire: He always looks more like a precocious grad student than an actual adult person.) As Daisy, Carey Mulligan does her best, but she isn't quite classical and remote enough to nail the role; her smiles, frankly, are too sincere. Joel Edgerton does his best to give Tom less Snidely Whiplash, and it's a little surprising how quietly sympathetic he makes him. But the movie belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, and I will say, I think he's sort of perfect. DiCaprio, who often tries to ugly himself up as a way to convey inner torment, goes the opposite route this time, looking full movie-star glam throughout. (Luhrmann surely had a lot to do with this, too.) It works, because DiCaprio lets you still see the insecurity and fear underneath the facade while still always keeping on the mask. He's such a strong presence that every time he's offscreen, you keep waiting for him to come back.
5. Look, the film isn't a disaster. Luhrmann, a born showman, always keeps things moving, and even though the film's framing device is idiotic (Carraway telling the Gatsby story to his therapist), it still provides ample opportunity to have Fitzgerald's words read aloud to us, something not even 3-D can ruin. (Oh, and the 3-D is as pointless as you'd suspect.) I remain convinced that, someday, someone's gonna get Gatsby right as a movie. Its themes of ambition and loss and status and reinvention are universal, as powerful today as ever. We may have to wait 20 more years to give it another try, but I think we might eventually get there. The definitive Gatsby movie might get made. But boy, this sure ain't it.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.