The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
When I emerged from the preview screening of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, after being bombarded for nearly three hours with graphic images of sex, drugs, and money laundering, I felt like I had just seen an excessive film about excess, which just might have been great had it been cut down to well below the two-hour mark. I thought, “Sure, Marty’s being self-indulgent, but he still knows how to shoot a movie.” In the days since, however, as I have occasionally flashed back to various scenes of writhing bodies and white-powdered nostrils, my opinion has soured. I now believe that The Wolf of Wall Street is not just a mess (and a misogynist one at that), but one of the most offensively bad films of the year. I’ll bet it does great box office. Film critic David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, agrees: “I didn’t much care for [the film], but every time I describe it to someone he says, ‘I want to see that!’ Many people are going to be made happy by the wild, hyper-vulgar exuberance, the endless cruddy behavior (swindling, drugs, whoring, orgies, dwarf-tossing, more swindling), and the fully staged excess of every kind.'”
The movie is based on the supposedly true-life tale of one Jordan Belfort, who made it big with a bogus investment firm, did copious amounts of drugs and screwed a gazillion women, and then got caught and did time. Or wait . . . is that a gazillion drugs and copious amounts of women? I can’t keep it straight, and since the women are treated like commodities for sale and consumption – just like the drugs – you’ll have to forgive me if I’m confused. And since Belfort treats his clients as suppliers – of cash – it all gets muddled into one big blur of intoxication, which is, I suppose, the point that Scorsese is trying to make. Greed is bad, and lust for one kind of illicit gain goes hand in hand with gluttony of all kinds. I. Get. It. Do we really need a three-hour movie to drive this point home again and again and again? Well, if you want to have your coke and snort it, too – get a contact high, cheat vicariously on your spouse, and watch someone else spend lots of money – then your answer may be yes.
Personally, I can’t stop the feeling that Scorsese just got off so much on the fun of it all – nubile female bodies, included – that he forgot to make an actual movie. It’s a bit like an undercover narcotics agent who starts taking drugs to blend in with his marks, only to find that he’s hooked. All of the scenes of drug ingestion and orgies are staged with such energy and visual flair that it’s not clear what Scorsese is doing. Does he want us to celebrate Belfort? Condemn him? Both? If only I could find a point of view in the film, it would help me understand why I needed to see the female characters consistently degraded and debauched. Instead, it just feels like a 71-year-old man’s idea of a good time. Bring on the hookers!
Which is too bad, because there are moments of genuinely good filmmaking and acting in the middle of it all. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Belfort, is quite good, and commits fully to the part, managing to sometimes rise above the material. Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s friend Donnie Azoff (a fictional composite of a few real people) is a solid supporting player, as is Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife Naomi. The best performance in the film, however, belongs to Matthew McConaughey, who appears, sadly, only in the beginning as Mark Hanna, an established trader who takes the young Belfort under his wing to teach him how to be a successful trader (how? do coke and masturbate frequently). There is great restraint in that early scene, which vanishes as soon as Belfort strikes out on his own. As for the rest of the cast, Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, is wasted, as is Jean Dujardin as a Swiss banker.
I have enjoyed many films that use excess of violence, sex, drugs, and/or venality in their scripts and visual aesthetics to brilliantly illuminate their stories, such as Django Unchained, Betty Blue, Requiem for a Dream, and Margin Call, to name just a few. The most recent example – and a far, far better film than The Wolf of Wall Street – is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. In that film – one of the best of the year -Korine traffics in the same drug- and sex-infused material as does Scorsese, and travels through the same gray moral area that Scorsese thinks he is exploring, yet – unlike Scorsese – emerges cinematically triumphant. Instead of going to see The Wolf of Wall Street, then, just rent or buy Spring Breakers. You’ll still get to see lots of naked ladies doing coke, if that’s your thing, but that film has an actual point to make.