The problem with Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby - a problem with The Great Gatsby, I had better say - there are many problems, and some of them are more debilitating than others, and some really aren't "problems", but idiosyncrasies. Let me start again.

See, there's a lot of The Great Gatsby where it seems apparent that what Luhrmann wants to do more than anything else is to remake his 2001 meta-musical Moulin Rouge!, and while the results aren't terribly effective at all as far as adaptation F. Scott Fitgerald's famous, wildly loved novel goes, they're awfully great Luhrmann. But there's even more of The Great Gatsby where Luhrmann gives the stylistic craziness a rest, and just wants to tell a rich, tragic love story, which is even less effective as adapting the book Gatsby, given that its title character and his female obsession weren't really tragic romantic heroes, and that's so burned into everything about the way the story works and the world and characters it presents that it's really not possible to retrofit a soaring romance onto Fitzgerald's plot skeleton. It's also not particularly great Luhrmann, though the way that his aesthetic plays out when it's being subdued to a minor key is interesting enough that I hope he continues to develop this less-exhausting side of himself.

The point of all this being that Luhrmann (and his usual co-writer, Craig Pearce) is trying to make two different movies, largely incompatible with each other, and while he's usually able to stick with just one for each scene, that doesn't make the flow between moments and the overall emotional arc and clearer or more coherent. Also, both of the movies Luhrmann has in mind are pretty bad adaptations of The Great Gatsby - though better, in both cases, than the terminally stilted 1974 film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow - making it hard to say why he didn't pick any of the hundreds of classic books where his operatic-romantic approach might actually have made even the remotest sense. I'm not a particularly huge Gatsby fan - it's an excellent dissection of American culture and psychology, but it's not even my favorite American novel of the 1920s - and the fact that Luhrmann's movie plays a bit fast and loose with the themes and emotions of the text isn't my concern per se, but rather the way that Luhrmann's intentions simply don't fit the story that same text has forced on him. In 1996, the director's take on William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet similarly blew up the text, attempting to revitalise it for a new generation of teenagers and restate it in a contemporary idiom - but all that film's broad, stylish experimentation, even when it failed, was still attempting in some way to explicate Romeo & Juliet. Whereas The Great Gatsby seems to view its source material as a primarily an inconvenience, relying on the most famous visual iconography (the green light across the bay, the optometrist's billboard) and its opportunity for '20s costumes and sets and all kinds of Flapper Era excess, but never resolving the fact that Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan is not by any conceivable stretch the tragic Juliet figure that Luhrmann and Pearce need her to be.

The good news - very nearly the saving grace, even - is that the excess is so high-quality: Luhrmann's wife and most important visual collaborator, Catherine Martin, is up to her usual good work with both the costume and production design, and her adoption of a color palette of lavish yellows and greens gives the movie a visual discipline that it might otherwise lack. As was somewhat true of Moulin Rouge!, the editing and rocket-powered camera movement makes it a little hard to enjoy the sets as much as we'd like, but the more that the script slows down to bask in the romantic half of the plot, the more that Luhrmann's sped-up aesthetic pulls back, giving us plenty of opportunities to look at Gatsby's palatial home and his infamous shirts (it's worth mentioning that The Great Gatsby was edited by Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond, and Matt Villa, none of whom are Jill Bilcock, who cut the director's first three films and is the chief reason that the quicksilver editing in Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! feels intensive and purposeful rather than just manic - Gatsby's party scenes are just manic). The film finds Luhrmann working in 3-D, and though digital cinematography suits his style awkwardly (it gives everything a certain antiseptic sheen), being able to plunge into sets and feel the world spilling out right at the audience fits his style perfectly. The biggest problem I have with this is that there's not enough of it: by the 90-minute mark of a bloated 143-minute film (just barely shorter than the '74 version), Luhrmann has largely committed to telling his story and not beating us with his aesthetic, and this is maybe the chief reason that Gatsby isn't up to the standard set by Moulin Rouge!, where the visuals were just as unrelenting as the melodrama.

Even without having to fight for attention with the style, The Great Gatsby's not even a terribly persuasive melodrama: first, because the characters aren't designed for it, and second, because the actors are, to a man, mis-cast. No not "to a man"; newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is fantastic as the sporty, sarcastic Jordan Baker, and I'm greatly eager to see more of her. But the big stars in the big roles pretty consistently don't work out: Tobey Maguire's Nick Carroway is far too much of an "aw shucks" kid, and Leonardo DiCaprio's Jay Gatsby is a poor compromise between the soulless character in the book and the weepy romantic in the script, and that's setting aside that he's visibly too old for the part. Carey Mulligan's Daisy Buchanan is a failure, though an interesting one: she tries hard as possible to make the symbolic character real enough to seem like a worthwhile part, while also implying the romantic longing that the script can't make explicit without destroying the story altogether. It's a noble attempt that ends up feeling too fussy and incoherent, though she's by far the most interesting of the leads to watch, mostly for lack of competition.

It's not that this film is devoid of merit as a romance, it's just not very compelling owing to the characters' sketchy construction. The film is always better as a spectacle, though it is not always a great one: the much-ballyhooed Jay-Z produced soundtrack isn't terribly memorable even as jarring anachronism, and there are some visual tricks that Luhrmann enjoys using that don't work (on-screen text, especially in 3-D, which looks profoundly dumb). But just enough of the glitz and glamor and exhaustive re-creation of '20s New York as a fantasyland just as rich as the director's 1899 Paris all work well enough that the film manages to be sort of enjoyable. I am not desperate enough that "sort of enjoyable" is a satisfactory replacement for "good".