The frame that Luhrmann and Pearce set up of having Tobey Maguire's Nick, institutionalized for alcoholism, write his story as a form of therapy, is the weakest element of the adaptation. No actor could embody Nick's authorial perceptiveness and brokenhearted tenderness, and Maguire, good at communicating an outsider's longing for connection, strains when having to portray the soul weariness of the older Nick.

Lionel Trilling is hardly the only literary critic to point out that in "Fitzgerald's work, the voice of his prose is of the essence of his success." A film can intimate this quality — and Luhrmann pays homage to it not just through voice-overs but through whole sentences dancing from Nick's manuscript onto the screen — yet cannot replicate it.

Luhrmann's aesthetic may not be a natural match for what Trilling called Fitzgerald's "characteristic modesty" and "stateliness." But Luhrmann succeeds in a number of ways, most importantly in reminding us that behind Fitzgerald's critique of the American dream is a doomed love story.

PHOTOS: 'The Great Gatsby' premiere

I have never been a huge DiCaprio fan, but has the alienated charm of this movie star ever been deployed to better effect? Outwardly gleaming, his Gatsby is inwardly crushed by losing Daisy (Carey Mulligan) to old-money brute Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). The West Egg palace that Gatsby has built is a monument to an American acquisitiveness born out of rejection. No wonder all his lavish parties seem to leave him at such a loss.

Because Fitzgerald's book is such a popular choice of English teachers, there's a false assumption that the characters must be highly developed. They aren't. Many operate as symbols or (to use Trilling's term) "ideographs," representatives of a social class or a category of person. Their complexity comes not through their self-awareness but through Nick's deepening understanding of how the puzzle pieces of their actions fit together into a startling national portrait.

Beyond DiCaprio's Gatsby, the standout performance in the film is Edgerton's Tom, the gruff incarnation of aristocratic masculinity. Mulligan has been faulted for being a little too earthbound for ethereal Daisy, but of course her idealization exists principally in Gatsby's mind.

What both Edgerton and Mulligan bring to their roles, particularly in the climactic scene at the Plaza Hotel, where Gatsby confronts Tom with the news of his rekindled love affair with Daisy, is a lucidity into the way the weaknesses of their "careless" characters interact with their class privilege. Here the psychology of Fitzgerald's plot is granularly delineated.

Catherine Martin's production design lays out the geography of the novel in a storybook fashion not locatable on any map but true to the imaginative scheme. This is a realm that exists in the fictive now, a landscape to be motored through at top speed with Jay-Z and company providing neo-jazzy reminders of how current the "Gatsby" milieu remains.

In another couple of decades "The Great Gatsby" will no doubt live again on screen, possibly in a tamer form more faithful to the memory of readers, many of whom lost their virginity to adult literature with this book. But that experience is readily recaptured in a solitary afternoon.

Luhrmann can be held to account for many missteps, but his boldness is refreshing. If some critics feel the need to punish him for not indulging their nostalgia, it's heartening to see moviegoers eager to experience "Gatsby" anew.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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