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A.O. Scott: The Great Gatsby, Interpreted

Under the New York Times headline “Shimmying Off the Literary Mantle,” A.O. Scott reminds us that a film adaptation doesn’t always need to be a book’s conjoined twin. Especially when the book is already everything a novel needs to be.

The best way to enjoy Baz Luhrmann’s big and noisy new version of “The Great Gatsby” — and despite what you may have heard, it is an eminently enjoyable movie — is to put aside whatever literary agenda you are tempted to bring with you. I grant that this is not so easily done. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slender, charming third novel has accumulated a heavier burden of cultural significance than it can easily bear. Short and accessible enough to be consumed in a sitting (as in “Gatz,” Elevator Repair Service’s full-text staged reading), the book has become, in the 88 years since its publication, a schoolroom staple and a pop-cultural totem. It shapes our increasingly fuzzy image of the jazz age and fuels endless term papers on the American dream and related topics.

Through this fog of glib allusion and secondhand thinking, the wistful glimmer of Fitzgerald’s prose shines like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. If “The Great Gatsby” can’t quite sustain the Big Ideas that are routinely attached to it — a fact that periodically inspires showboating critical contrarians to proclaim that it’s not such a big deal after all — it nonetheless remains a lively, imaginative presence. The book may not be as Great as its reputation, but it is also, partly for that reason, better than you might expect. It is flawed and flimsy in some ways, but it still manages to be touching, surprising and, in its bittersweet fashion, a lot of fun.

All of which is to say that whatever you think of Mr. Luhrmann’s energetic, brightly colored rendering of the sad story of Jay Gatsby, the Trimalchio of West Egg, Long Island, it should at least be immune to accusations of sacrilege. “Gatsby” is not gospel; it is grist for endless reinterpretation. Mr. Luhrmann’s reverence for the source material is evident. He sticks close to the details of the story and lifts dialogue and description directly from the novel’s pages. But he has also felt free to make that material his own, bending it according to his artistic sensibility and what he takes to be the mood of the times. The result is less a conventional movie adaptation than a splashy, trashy opera, a wayward, lavishly theatrical celebration of the emotional and material extravagance that Fitzgerald surveyed with fascinated ambivalence…

Some of the finely shaded social distinctions that preoccupied Fitzgerald — between Easterners and Westerners, new money and old — are noted, but they don’t have a whole lot of resonance. We are in a world of artifice and illusion, confected from old-fashioned production-design virtuosity and newfangled digital hocus-pocus…

In the 3-D version, the viewer swoops and swerves through one of Gatsby’s parties in a movement that combines Vincente Minnelli-style suavity with the controlled vertigo of a theme park ride. As it happens, Nick Carraway compares the sybaritic scene at Gatsby’s mansion to “an amusement park.” And Mr. Luhrmann’s peculiar genius — also the thing that drives cultural purists of various stripes crazy — lies in his eager, calculating mix of refinement and vulgarity.

Neither Fitzgerald nor Nick, his diffident mouthpiece, was immune to the seductions of hedonism and luxury, and the book does not entirely succeed as a critique of American materialism at what seemed to be its high-water mark. Mr. Luhrmann, for his part, does not resist at all. He fuses the iconography of dressed-up ’20s decadence with the swagger of hip-hop high-end consumerism. Jay Gatsby has got money. He’s got cars. He’ll spend a hundred grand over by the bar…

To those of us watching in our modest multiplex seats, he is a movie star. In previous incarnations he was Robert Redford, Alan Ladd and Warner Baxter, and now Leonardo DiCaprio has slipped into the ice cream suit and the curious diction. “Old sport” may be the two hardest words for an American actor to say, but for Gatsby himself they were an affectation, so it is possible to overlook Mr. DiCaprio’s overdone accent. (I do wish he would try a performance without one, though.) More important, it is impossible to look away from him. His charisma has increased as his youthful prettiness has worn and thickened away, and he is beautiful, sad, confident and desperate in exactly the way Gatsby should be…