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Film review: The Great Gatsby (12A)

You didn't need all that jazz, Baz

The novelist Jay McInerney has observed that, "It's possible we Americans are not entirely rational about The Great Gatsby." Make that Australians, too, if Baz Luhrmann's garish, hyperbolic movie adaptation is anything to go by.

Brave is the film-maker who would take on this most sacred of American novels, F Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age fable of doomed love and careless wealth. A British director, Jack Clayton, had a go at it in 1974, hired Robert Redford for the title role, and stifled the thing dead with politeness. Luhrmann is braver, or at least more daring, and he connects to something in the story's love-hate attitude to ostentation; it has energy, but not subtlety; dazzle, but not depth.

You can hear in certain sentences of the book what must have attracted Luhrmann to the idea of a film. Describing New York in 1922, the story's watchful narrator, Nick Carraway, says, "The restlessness approached hysteria". Tick. Later, surveying the lavish party scene that's a fixture at the Gatsby place, someone suggests, "It's like an amusement park".

Double tick. Hysteria and amusement: pure catnip to a director who only has to see a top to go over it. Right from the outset the camera soars over the water towards Gatsby's Long Island mansion, roughly the size of St Pancras Station, and whatever else it may do, this film is always restless, always on the move. You may find it exasperating, but I don't think you could find it boring.

Indeed, there will be those who want to plunge right into its glittering frenzy, just as they did into Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, another top-heavy lurch through romantic fatalism. In its single instance of restraint, The Great Gatsby holds back from revealing the title character, preferring to herald his arrival with half an hour's overheard tittle-tattle: Nick, told that Gatsby is a German spy, a bootlegger, a nouveau riche adventurer, is barely prepared for the moment the man himself appears, framed against a burst of fireworks – boom! – with Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" reaching its majestic climax. If he'd jumped out of a cake it couldn't have been more spectacular. So much for the entrance. What can they do for the main event?

Perhaps fearing that Nick's voice is too elusive for a big movie, Luhrmann and his co-writer, Craig Pearce, have invented a silly framing device. The "morbidly alcoholic" Nick (Tobey Maguire) is recovering in a sanatorium and, on his shrink's advice, is writing up the story of his life in the wake of Gatsby. Hey, they knew about self-help even then! At times it becomes so literal-minded that lines from the novel shimmer across the screen in superimposed cursive.

Thus Nick's journey plays out in flashback: his renting of a cottage on Long Island; his renewed association with his debutante cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), her vicious, racist husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and their golfing-pro friend Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki); and his wondering entrance into the orbit of glamour and display that is Jay Gatsby, formerly James Gatz, neighbour and man of mystery.

The crux of the story is Gatsby's enduring love for Daisy, interrupted five years before when he went off to war, then thwarted when she married the well-born brute. Is it a one-sided affair, or has Daisy belatedly come to realise her mistake? Much depends on the performances to flesh out Fitzgerald's dreamy prose.

Maguire offers a genial passivity as Nick, half-in and half-out of this charmed circle, though he remains a dampener – he doesn't seem quite deep or clever enough to justify his central role. Mulligan has a sweet, heart-shaped face, but nothing of a siren's allure; she still looks like the kid sister of someone much sexier, and possibly taller. In fact, Debicki as Jordan might be that someone, a commanding, leggy presence with a haughty profile – a flapper a man might flip for. She also looks terrific in the clothes.

Catherine Martin's costumes are superb, incidentally, though at times they seem to be wearing the cast rather than the other way round. The production never lets you forget that you're watching a Baz Luhrmann movie; it's meant to be ravishing, but tends to look merely fussy and overdesigned. White telephones, yellow sports cars, pink suits, green lights: it's striking without ever being beautiful.

I suppose one defence of the film's visual splurge is that it matches up to Fitzgerald's own dismayed fascination with the excess of the age – the parties, the boozing, the wild behaviour. It's an operatic fantasia on Gatsby, which is the only kind of film Luhrmann knows how to make. (I haven't even mentioned that it's in 3D). And just occasionally he gets it spot-on, like the scene in which Gatsby capers round his galleried dressing-room throwing out his lovely shirts, making Daisy laugh, then cry. Gatsby's prodigality, Daisy's shallowness, Nick's witnessing, all come together in one blissed-out memory.

I have a feeling that Jay McInerney and other devotees of Fitzgerald are going to hate this movie, not least because it's acted by so many Aussies and Brits. Intruders in the temple! The exception, of course, aside from Maguire, is Leonardo DiCaprio, whose golden aura should appease even the naysayers. Watching him, I was reminded of something Roger Lewis wrote about the Carry On star Charles Hawtrey: "Charles Hawtrey began as a child actor, and remained one".

DiCaprio, even at 38, still seems to have baby fat on his cheeks, and the petulant set of his mouth makes him look not quite grownup. That might not be bad casting for Gatsby, who's still enough of a youth to believe that the past is reclaimable, that we can seize the vital moment of our life even when it appears to have gone. And isn't that why the novel is a great American touchstone? It wants to believe in second chances, even when rational thought dictates otherwise. DiCaprio, with his neurotic bonhomie ("old sport") and desperate neediness, is at least very watchable. But the film that surrounds him doesn't convince; this Gatsby isn't great, or even close to it.