THE GREAT GATSBY ***1/2 (142 minutes) M
Anyone who dismisses any hope of subtlety from Baz Luhrmann's audacious adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel will not only be pleasantly surprised, they're likely to reappraise the director's alleged preference for tack over tact.
Yes, The Great Gatsby is brash, loud, over-the-top, in-your-face, raucous and outlandish - as it should be. But only for a while. And only when called for.
When the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws parties at his New York mansion, he does so with all the excess and frivolity synonymous with the stereotype of the "Roaring 20s".
What enchants lowly neighbour Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), however, is the enigma of the man. Why is he so rich? What are all these rumours? Is he a war hero? A high-class gangster? And who are all these people? Are they part of his empire? Hangers on? Both?
But it is Gatsby's fascination with the mansion across the water - and the blinking green light at the end of its pier - that intrigues Nick most. For in that mansion live Nick's cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her wealthy, roguish, racist husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton, again proving his versatility). Seems Gatsby and Daisy had a thing five years earlier, and desperately wants it rekindled.
Nick inevitably becomes ensnared in Gatsby's desire for Daisy, a pursuit complicated by Tom's semi-secret affair with Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher), the wife of a local mechanic.
Fitzgerald would have loved this film. First Luhrmann immerses you in Gatsby's world, then propels you along a journey pitted with poignant moments of loss, regret, longing and, as Nick repeatedly states, hope.
Amidst the extravagance are scores of well-judged insights into human frailty. The key scene where Gatsby meets Daisy for the first time in five years is a flawless evocation of how no amount of money or preparation can make up for plain old romantic awkwardness. It's testament to just how good an actor DiCaprio has become that he can play such nuanced moments so perfectly.
Visually, the film is the fast-moving, pastel-coloured cinematic mural you'd expect, a style that has become so synonymous with Luhrmann's brand. When it comes to filling a screen with noisy spectacle, Luhrmann has few peers. He's like a sensible version of Terry Gilliam.
That said, it's a pity that Luhrmann, having gone to so much trouble to pound so much detail into his widescreen compositions, edits so damned quickly. Oftentimes, your eye just isn't given the time to drink in the richness of the images, a shortcoming made all the more frustrating in 3D.
There is also a synthetic feel that permeates much of the film. Though Luhrmann is one of the most accomplished digital filmmakers alive, he (nor anyone) has yet been able to make an exterior scene shot in a studio look like the real deal.
The same applies to outside scenes that are artificially rendered or enhanced. There is so much digital work in The Great Gatsby that it never quite escapes the cartoonish quality of its visuals. It would have been great, for instance, to really feel that Gatsby's palatial mansion was just a few metres from its own beach.
Admittedly, these are quibbles over what is an extraordinarily entertaining film.
With all that said, it needs to be stated for the record that The Great Gatsby has been subject to some of the silliest film reviews in a long time. A few have been downright stupid.
Many of the movie's detractors have focussed on the liberal manner in which Luhrmann (who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Craig Pearce) has adapted the novel.
Curiously, they have especially attacked the film for its lavish style, as though there was some critical - even fatal - disconnect between Luhrmann's aesthetic sensibilities and Fitzgerald's rendering of his characters and of the era.
From this reviewer's perspective, the precise opposite is true. Luhrmann and Gatsby are a perfect match. Indeed, what's truly telling about this brash, boisterous adaptation is that the director clearly understands the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel better than most film critics.
When adapting a novel, the filmmaker's primary task is to interpret the work in cinematic terms with whatever deviations and flourishes they deem necessary to bring the narrative to life. That is exactly what Luhrmann has done.
Now, if Luhrmann was the champion of style over substance he is so often accused of being, then the film would not have worked dramatically. In fact, none of his films would have. Even his bloated, overlong 2008 melodrama Australia clicked because Luhrmann put people before bells and whistles. (It just took him a little long to do it!)
As it is - and as is usually the case with the structure of his films - Luhrmann front-loads the first reel of Gatsby with his signature visual dazzle before down-shifting to focus on the core of characters that drive the story.
We care about Gatsby, his secrets, about Daisy and Tom. Most of all we are made to understand in the film's final reel just how overwhelmed Nick is at the fathomless depth of Gatsby's love for Daisy.
That a man so apparently driven by selfishness could be capable of such selflessness forms the beating emotional heart of the film.
This, presumably, is why Luhrmann used the blinking green light at the end of Daisy's pier - mentioned only briefly in the book - as the film's visual motif. It's one thing to accuse Luhrmann of lacking subtlety; it's another to ignore his evocative use of symbolism.
As for the film's fortunes at the box office - $205m and counting - Luhrmann surely deserves credit for delivering a hit based on a 1925 novel in a movie marketplace stuffed to the brim with crass comedies, comic book movies, superheroes and sequels. Survey the field and The Great Gatsby stands out as the only major film with any originality or audacity.
Fun fact: At the end of the day, probably the best thing about Luhrmann's film is that it will spike interest in the novel among young people. The worst thing, regrettably, is that it will prompt many people to revisit the bland 1974 film in which the performances by Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and the brilliant Bruce Dern (one of Hollywood's best character actors) were smothered by Jack Clayton's dull direction. See it at your peril.
HAPPINESS NEVER COMES ALONE *** (110 minutes) M
Not only does French actress Sophie Marceau have an age-defying beauty - it's probably all due to make-up and lighting, but at 47 she appears as radiant as she did in 1995's Braveheart - she also proves in this enjoyable comedy that she has a gift for physical comedy. As Charlotte, she plays a working mother of three opposite free-love singleton Sacha (Gad Elmaleh). He's a promiscuous jazz-playing layabout whose one-night stand with Charlotte leads to unexpected complications. Screwball antics ensue. Many French movies wear their debt to American cinema on their sleeve. This is one of them.
A HAUNTED HOUSE **1/2 (86 minutes) MA
It's been several weeks since Scary Movie 5 so clearly what the world needs right now is another low-rent horror movie spoof. And this one's not bad. Sticking to Paranormal Activity for its premise, it actually produces some pretty funny moments, especially when the haunted couple (Marlon Wayans and Essence Atkins) try ignoring the poltergeist in their kitchen. Also, she begins enjoying sex with the spirit. Comedy buffs will recognise Cedric the Entertainer (as a priest) and Nick Swardson from Reno 911 (as a psychic).
Fun fact: Though hated by US critics, this modest, silly little film, made for a paltry $2.5m, hit its mark big-time, taking more than $40 million. A sequel is slated for next year.