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Originally published May 9, 2013 at 12:10 AM | Page modified May 9, 2013 at 1:48 PM

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Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Great Gatsby’ does justice to a great book

Baz Luhrmann’s stylized take on “The Great Gatsby” retains some of the novel’s melancholy magic, writes Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

‘The Great Gatsby,’ with Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Amitabh Bachchan. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, from a screenplay by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 142 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language. Several theaters.

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Making a film of something as masterfully ethereal as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is like trying to catch a bubble in the palm of your hand; it’s most likely to disappear, leaving no trace. There’s nothing subtle about Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” (the man who made “Moulin Rouge” doesn’t do subtlety) and it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste — but it’s filled with moments where, uncannily, Luhrmann holds on to that bubble, and we catch a whisper of the novel’s melancholy magic.

Fitzgerald’s story of love lost and remembered takes place in 1922; Luhrmann’s, in “1922” — a stylized, colorful idea of the era. There’s no use in playing spot-the-anachronism, because Luhrmann’s not interested in being strictly correct: No, “Rhapsody in Blue” wouldn’t have been played at a party in 1922 (it was composed two years later), but how glorious it sounds here, introducing the glamorous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) with a burst of crescendo and fireworks. No, the stylish Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) likely wouldn’t have worn a ballerina-waisted pouf of a gown in 1922, but how beautiful she looks, like she’s not quite anchored to the ground. And as for the much-buzzed contemporary music of the soundtrack (which actually takes up very little screen time) — yes, there it is, played at Gatsby’s insanely frenetic parties and reminding us that our host would have been very up-to-the-minute.

What matters more is Luhrmann’s eye for beauty, filling the screen with pictures nearly as lovely as Fitzgerald’s prose. The 3D photography actually works (like it did in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”) as a way of not making the film look more realistic, but enchantingly less so; the characters seem to float in a diorama, in what looks like softly faded Technicolor. Perhaps it’s often too pretty — Nick’s house, framed in a lacework of leaves on a blue twilight night, is almost laughably idyllic, and Tom and Myrtle’s Manhattan love nest is a bizarro symphony of red and pink — but I never wanted to look away.

Though the party scenes are every bit as loud and showy and, well, Baz Luhrmann-ish as his fans and detractors might guess, they’re only a small part of the story; for the most part, Luhrmann lets the movie calm down and lets his actors take their time. DiCaprio, as literature’s great dreamer, has a bumpy start — he has a little trouble with Gatsby’s posh accent — but eases beautifully into the role; by the end, his desperate love for Daisy shining through his eyes, he’s all hope as he gazes at that green light. Mulligan, with a voice that sounds as if she’s speaking through cashmere, finds something moving in Daisy’s feathery, fragile yearning. Tobey Maguire is gently and genuinely young as Nick Carraway, the narrator (and, in this version, a Fitzgerald stand-in) who grows irrevocably older that summer. Isla Fisher seems miscast as the coarse Myrtle Wilson — she chews her lines gamely but looks too delicately beautiful to believe them — but for the most part the cast looks and feels right.

Those who love the book (I’m among them) will spot moments of missed opportunity, but will also hear plenty of Fitzgerald’s words in the screenplay, and may well leave the movie feeling that something approaching justice has been done. Where this “Gatsby” fails, it at least does so with imagination and verve; where it succeeds, it finds poetry.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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