I will admit from the outset that my enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann's aesthetic has always been, shall we say, minimal--which means that I am not The Great Gatsby's ideal viewer. Then again, most critics have already singled out what struck me as the film's greatest problems, especially Tobey Maguire's half-note performance as Nick and Luhrmann's overall substitution of glitz for serious engagement with Fitzgerald's novel. (Shallow people are the subject; it does not follow that the film itself must be shallow.) But I'd like to add two things:
1. The triumph of writing. The Great Gatsby invokes and inverts one of the classic Hollywood signifiers for "adaptation on the screen!": putting the book on film. In the notorious example of Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1943), for example, the "book" is not Bronte's Jane Eyre at all, but an entirely new and more overtly political chunk of text. (You can see the book beginning at 1:13.) Luhrmann doesn't put The Great Gatsby at the beginning; instead, the frame shows us Nick rediscovering himself through writing-as-therapy, with the completed typescript at the end. The spartan quality of the typescript, in stark contrast to Gatsby's tacky glamour and the Buchanans' old money luxury, suggests the possibility of a disciplined way out from the film's meaningless revels, sexual escapades, and general debaucheries. Unlike either Gatsby or the Buchanans, Nick turns out to be capable of focused labor, "authentic" creative production; writing transforms him because it is work, even physical work (we see his handwriting, see him collapsed in front of the typewriter, etc.). Nick has, in a sense, earned his redeemed identity, in a way that the endlessly self-inventing Gatsby has not.
2. Race and realism, except when it isn't. We figure out pretty quickly that Tom Buchanan must be a bad guy, because he goes on about the dangers of rising African-American power and miscegenation, then later uses an antisemitic slur for Meyer Wolfsheim. Racism/antisemitism function as historical markers, that is: the twenty-first century viewer knows that these attitudes are bad (or we're supposed to, anyway), and that Buchanan represents something rotten. And yet the film tries to play with race. The African-American characters are almost entirely in the background, true, thinking goodness-knows-what about the whites they're serving or entertaining--but then the speakeasy is strangely well-integrated, and there's Nick's encounter with a group of African-American partiers in a car driven by a white chauffeur. In other words, is Buchanan anachronistic then or now? Or is it supposed to be both? Or, again, should we take the simultaneous omnipresence and invisibility of the African-American characters as a symptom of Nick's own mindset, a fantastic, distorted mental camera? Casting Amitabh Bachchan as Wolfsheim distracted me for a slightly different reason, as it felt like Luhrmann was trying to subvert Jewish stereotypes without knowing that there was a Jewish community in India. (Not being a telepath, I could be wrong--and, granted, one would not expect a Jew from India to be called Meyer Wolfsheim.) More to the point, though, the film does nothing to evade the antisemitic implications of having a Jew be, in effect, the true, new-money power behind Gatsby's glitzy facade; making Wolfsheim scarier than the novel's original is not exactly much help.