Imagine a lovely, gold-leaf, hardback copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."
Now imagine getting hit over the head with it, firmly and repeatedly.
That's how the first 20 minutes feels in Baz Luhrmann's glitzy new film version of the 1925 classic.
This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in a scene from “The Great Gatsby.”
And then, as if by magic, Leonardo DiCaprio takes hold of the book and opens it up.
Honestly, it's like the man was born for this role.
Judging from the abusive previews, with a pulsating world of flashy 3-D sets, noisy music and orgiastic parties, I was prepared to hate this film; and it does take some getting used to.
But it's nothing like the disaster depicted in so many reviews; nicely acted and visually impressive, it manages to articulate Fitzgerald's themes with bracing clarity and faithfulness.
Yes, there's lots of contemporary music by Beyonce, U2, will.i.am, Jay Z and Florence + the Machine, among others; and this is indeed annoying in the party scenes, where brassy Jazz-Age material seems called for.
On the other hand, the use of rap and rock does point out how similar our own era is to those days of dangerously superficial abandon. In any case, much of the new music has been interpolated with a sultry, smokier sound; and the singing by young Lana Del Rey is spectacular.
Plus, there's a generous helping of such period players as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, along with brand-new jazz arrangements by glam-rock legend Bryan Ferry, whose work with Roxy Music always exuded old-world sensibility. Ferry's new rendering of "Rhapsody in Blue" is terrifically effective.
I could have done without the 3-D feature, which is the case with nearly every 3-D film I've seen. (Ditto the obnoxious speeding-car scenes in this film.)
But "GG's" visual scheme generally works, especially in the crackling and colorful Manhattan scenes, and the dusky, ash-strewn wastelands of central Long Island.
As for DiCaprio: His gorgeous and definitive Gatsby is a seamless blend of sophistication and naivete, of desperate ambition and genuine amity - and of eternal, unquenchable hope.
Joel Edgerton is excellent as Tom Buchanan; and the rest of the cast is solid: Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and Jason Clarke - though Maguire has to fight his way through an awkward flashback framework; it's entirely unnecessary and hobbles a film that's already too long.
That last statement may surprise those who watched the movie's frantic, breathless previews. But as the tale proceeds, Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce go slower and slower laying out the powerful ideas that resonate with Fitzgerald's readers: the shocking shallowness of high society; the insensate gulf between new money and old; and in particular, the impossibility of re-creating the past - or of escaping its clutches.
I was surprised by the youthfulness of the crowd at the show I attended on opening night; Luhrm-ann's film will help them understand these ideas and perhaps a few will pick up the book.
Who can gripe about that?
*** (out of four)
The film is rated PG-13 for sexuality and some violent images.