There's a lot to like about "The Great Gatsby," Baz Luhrmann's flashy, messy, manic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel. That slim but thematically tricky little volume remains a captivating riddle, which may be why no filmmaker has created the "definitive" version. Luhrmann, the fourth to try, hasn't, either -- there's a lot to dislike here as well -- but his is easily the most entertaining "Gatsby" yet.
It's a product of its time, as were the others: a 1926 silent, a 1949 noir and a gauzy 1974 romance starring hunk-of-the-moment Robert Redford as the mysterious Long Island millionaire Jay Gatsby. This version is a postmodern pastiche: Flappers gyrate to Jay-Z, Gatsby's Gold Coast mansion looks like a Disneyland castle and Jazz Age New York has more candy-colored costumes and confetti than a Katy Perry concert. (Make that Madonna; Luhrmann's vision of pop spectacle sometimes recalls the 1980s more than the 1920s or 2010s.)
The anachronisms hammer home an obvious point -- 'twas ever thus! -- which would get tiresome if not for some outstanding performances. Carey Mulligan is picture perfect as Gatsby's aristocratic beloved, Daisy Fay Buchanan, but the character's vibrancy has been written away; now she's just sad, sad, sad. Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway, strikes a nice blend of passivity and outrage, while Joel Edgerton, as Daisy's husband, Tom, is a revelation, bringing out the nobility in this story's go-to villain. Crucial roles, such as the jet-setting Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) and the ill-used Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), are reduced to near-cameos.
As for Leonardo DiCaprio, he is now the Gatsby to beat. Despite a borderline comedic entrance -- haloed by fireworks and accompanied by Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" -- DiCaprio nails this maddeningly enigmatic character. He's as tough as Alan Ladd in '49, as suave as Redford in '74, but also vulnerable, touching, funny, a faker, a human. You hear it all in Gatsby's favorite phrase, "old sport," a verbal tic that stumped other actors. It's a tremendous, hard-won performance.
DiCaprio helps save the movie from its excesses and missteps, particularly a narration that not only redundantly describes the visuals but obscures them in the form of floating words. Luhrmann hasn't solved the riddle of "Gatsby," but it's an audacious and worthy attempt.
PLOT In 1922, a newly minted millionaire tries to claim the well-born woman he loves.
BOTTOM LINE The fourth adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel scores some hits and wild misses, but DiCaprio nails the bull's-eye. He is Gatsby, though "Gatsby" has yet to be made.