The Wolf of Wall Street
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.
I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). Which means part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy whose first day as a fully-fledged broker is that of the 1987 stock market crash.
Belfont’s rise up the ladder comes via an inauspicious Long Island boiler room, where he instantaneously makes his mark as a highly effective dealer in penny stocks; instead of the rich and stupid, he targets the poor and stupid. With a supreme knack for selling people what they don’t want, and having been mentored to put his own profit first, Belfort soon starts his own firm (Stratton Oakmont). Its success is built on securities dupery; investors are defrauded through “pump and dump” sales of useless stock. But he also lusts after the respectable end of business. So he arranges the IPO of a prominent shoe designer, from which he also illegally makes a killing. Before long he is attempting to hide his shedloads of cash in Swiss bank accounts, with the FBI is breathing down his neck.
That’s the “proper” plot. But Scorsese and screenplay writer Terence Winter choose to make the evils of the market place merely the backdrop. This is really a film about unchecked hedonism; it’s wall-to-wall with the stuff. Do they think we don’t want or need the fine detail, as we know all traders are scum? The Goodfellas comparison bears some consideration, as, unlike that film, there’s no opportunity to develop its sociopathic protagonist (even if Henry Hill is spiralling out of control, he has an arc). Belfort is pretty much a fixed personality twenty minutes in, and his eventual “redemption” (reinvention might be a better word) as a motivational speaker suggests no degree of repentance; merely an opportunist forced to make his money in a new way.
His life has (mostly drug-induced) highs, but the lows have no real weight behind them because we don’t care about the self-absorbed prick. And also because he remains relatively unaffected by, even oblivious to, the downsides. He doesn’t actually pay very much for his sins. And that may be the point; it’s all really easy, and even those who “suffer” in the Wall Street game don’t really suffer. They get an easy ride, and before long they can dust themselves off (white-collar crime itself carries a certain “not all that shameful” cachet). Matthew McConaughey’s mentor figure sets out the (im)morality stall in a spellbinding extended cameo that introduces us to the law of the Wall Street jungle; you make money for yourselves, not your investors, and no one knows a damn thing. It’s just what we already knew though, isn’t it? We can all go home now, can’t we? No, not yet. Let’s see how these rich fucks live, shall we?
Perhaps, then, the lack of ethical compass, and Scorsese’s disinterest in establishing any such direction, is an intended lesson in the nature of this (business) world. But if so, and I’ll ask this a few times, isn’t he preaching to the choir? Strike that down, and what has film got up its sleeve other than an ability to shock, titillate, and/or appal. Goodfellas introduced us to both the lifestyle and the life; we felt like we were privy to the ways of the wise guy. TWOWS seems content to cast this aside with Belfort’s smug to-camera pronouncement that the ways of the trader are much too complicated and we don’t really want to hear about them. Which strikes me as a cop out. If Scorsese and Hill don’t want to provide any such insights, why spend so long not getting there? Margin Call proved that complex financial manoeuvring can be made comprehensible, so it’s doubly disappointing. The closest we get is the subplot of the protracted public offering, but only because it relates to Jordan’s downfall, not because Winter has any apparent interest in it in and of itself.
TWOWS spends undue time evidencing Belfort’s rapacious capacity for extreme behaviour; much of it is a variation on the same, and leaves a clear trajectory at the door. The film seems wilfully disdainful of narrative progression, swimming in circles with repetitive scenes of jaundiced acts. The argument may be that such wearisome reiteration is the point, but is it one we needed ramming home? It’s a curious defence of the movie that a director is attempting to test the patience of his audience in order to deliver a thematic message (not that the film is ever boring in a given scene, but its content becomes cumulatively redundant). All we actually need to get the memo is a judiciously placed scene; it’s right there when Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff is wanking away in full view at a house party, or to a lesser extent when Belfort awakes in restraints on a transatlantic flight. It doesn’t take much to recognise that these guys are arseholes or to tire of their ways, and frankly it does the audience, and the filmmaker, a disservice to make excuses for a lack of control in the editing suite (I know, I know; Thelma Schoonmaker is a titan. And it’s not her editing of individual scenes that’s the problem – it’s the size of the beast as a whole).
Given the devotion to Belfort, it’s curious that we never really get an idea of why his staff love him so; by the time we reach his soon-not-to-be leaving speech, the mention of his £25k gift to one of his first (female) employees (tears all round) feels like a desperate sop to claw him back the vaguest suggestion of selflessness amidst the consummate self-centredness. And naturally it fails.
It’s also a problem that the motivational speeches come too late. We’ve already seen what Belfort can do much more impressively during the penny shares scene. With that, and the mesmerising monologue from Matt McC, anything else was going to have to struggle to make the same mark. Good as Leo is (strike that, he’s great), he is unable to convince us his staff are really awed and pumped to sell. There’s none of the electricity to his speech the way there is with Alec Baldwin’s sales pitch to his sellers in Glengarry Glen Ross. Part of it is no doubt that they are empty words, but isn’t the key to make us hear it the way the rapt employees do? Hill and Scorsese are undoubtedly more enamoured with their character than we are (or Leo, who initiated the project, is), so it is fortunate that they have the gift of DiCaprio’s performance.
The actor is on the top of his game, even if his narration seems to be consciously channelling Ray Liotta’s nonchalant Henry Hill. Above and beyond selling us the idea that Belfort is a great salesman, the most impressive thing here is how damn funny Leo is. We know Jonah Hill can be funny (if he’s not trying too hard, and with enormous whitened dentures and horn-rimmed specs he’s been blessed with all the props he needs), but DiCaprio is frequently, apparently effortlessly, hilarious. So he’s got one up on Scorsese’s one-time multi-collaborator De Niro there.
TWOWS is the closest Scorsese has come to a (twisted) comedy since the early ‘80s and The King of Comedy and After Hours. He undoubtedly succeeds in that fine juggling act between making TWOWS both raucously funny and at the same time very much not a celebration of these people. We can see the unthinking cruelty and disdain for their prey, and the irony that most of these specimens of power broking are found wanting in both looks and personality is not lost on us. No one would seriously want to be in their shoes unless they too were sociopaths. Like the guys cueing up to join the firm after a Forbes article rips a piece out of Belfont. And unlike the poor schmuck who cleans the goldfish bowl (I do wonder when I read that Jonah Hill reportedly wanted to actually eat a live goldfish for his “art”; it sounds like he’s a rather impressionable young wannabe “serious” thespian).
The comic beats are often sublime. There’s the anecdote about Jordan’s father, in which a resplendent Rob Reiner shouts and swears his way to answer the telephone (who would dare to call his house on a Tuesday, when he is watching The Equalizer?). It’s the kind of thing this film has in abundance. Beautifully formed, perfectly pitched individual scenes. There’s just too many of them. And then sometimes the jokes fall flat because, as with every aspect here, it’s stuck on repeat. Scorsese encourages improv, but a lot of the party time and office material feels like outtakes from a lesser Will Ferrell movie. I mentioned Jonah Hill wanking (and it will come up again and again). By the time he pisses in a bin, the office scenes are beginning to induce fatigue.
And there’s another problem here. The heightened take on the lifestyle, the comedy and the cartoonishness, denies TWOWS any resonance. This is a gaudy, titillating and gross comic book. Dazzlingly made by a master but with no idea when to stop. We’re carried along by the bravura filmmaking but soon the feeling of nourishment has passed and we’re left with mild indigestion.
It’s probably unsurprising that Scorsese comes especially alive depicting the drug side of the depravity. If he could have brought that same keenness of craft to the trading, wouldn’t TWOWS have been a greater achievement? To initiate us into the scams and low-down trickery rather than (as mentioned) self-reflexively pronouncing they are too hard to understand. The vice is the easy part, which is why it goes on and on and on.
What has already become known as The Quaaludes Scene is extraordinary (not the one depicted above). It’s the most staggeringly well-conceived and executed, laugh-out-loud funny piece of pure cinema I’ve seen in many a year. A fifteen – twenty? – minute episode of sustained comic timing and tension, it shows TWOWS at its very best. Jordan’s ancient Lemons finally take hold at a country club, rendering him immobile. Somehow, he must make his way home to warn Donnie not to use the FBI-tapped telephone. Even if it means crawling. If Scorsese can deliver something as perfect as this, surely, he should be able to see that a few less office jamborees and hookers wouldn’t be missed in the cause of greater focus. I was oblivious to the effects of Quaaludes before watching the film, and I can’t say I really understand their appeal after. In the absence of any to hand (perhaps TWOWS will spark an illicit comeback?) I will have to Wiki the damn things.
If you took away the acres of flesh and mounds of coke you could probably shave (an appropriate word, given the bodies on display) a good ninety minutes off the film. While ex-coke fiend Scorsese draws on every piece of technical jiggery-pokery in his arsenal to render the effects of narcotics, he is more reserved with the sex. Obviously, this side has received all the attention (I don’t doubt that Hill’s prosthetic cock needed trimming to stave off the NC-17 rating) but like a good Catholic boy Marty films the rumpo dutifully rather than lasciviously (if there’s one thing Scorsays is not, its Paul Verhoeven). I fear for Margot Robbie, however; she may be instantly been consigned to Shazza Stone’s fate of showing off her wares in each new coming attraction.
Maybe I’m just ungrateful. I in no way wanted a repeat of the cosy morality of Wall Street, but I do understand the complaint that the filmmakers needed to show the victims’ side. I don’t necessarily agree with this, as it would be very difficult to pull off without a queasy Oliver Stone-esque morality play creeping in. But the sheer length of the film makes it something of a one-trick pony, telling variations on the same gag over and over. Scorsese has the same problem as Bay with Pain & Gain, although he is an incomparably superior filmmaker (much, much smarter for starters) and can nurture a scene like no other in order to extract its primary purpose. But he has the same problem of too much story, when that too much story is actually the same story going round and round (a bit like this review, actually). You can’t school Bay but Scorsese seems to be getting less ruthless as he gets older, even if the actual prowess on display proves he’s as vital a visual force as ever.
You can see the lack of clarity in the stop-start structure. The FBI guy (Kyle Chandler; as soon as I saw him I thought, “Of course! Kyle Chandler’s been cast in the Kyle Chandler part!”) is introduced (a great scene on Jordan’s yacht where he kind of doesn’t try to bribe the Feds; this is what I mean – any given stretch of the movie will reap a gem of a scene somewhere) and then promptly disappears for another forty minutes. The director has all these plates spinning but is distracted by the soufflés perched atop them. Even then, because he’s a master, just as things get a bit samey, he throws something else into the mix (who saw the yacht-sea rescue coming?) But he needed to move on to keep the story interesting. Rather than pepping it up with visual ludes, dude.
Mention of the FBI leads to another issue. It’s clearly a conscious decision. We’re rarely away from Jordan’s company; he’s the narrator of his own tale, after all. But we weren’t away from Henry Hill much in Goodfellas and we still got a look-in from Lorraine Bracco. There’s no other perspective in the movie. Not of his wife (wives). Not of the victims. Not of the FBI. TWOWS might be a reasonably acute character sketch, but it would have worked better if it had an alternate view of the world outside of Belfont. It’s indulgent. So the film is a reflection of Belfont, see; Scorsese has become Belfont. No, that’s not an excuse.
Along with this, as usual Scorsese features under-developed female characters at every stage. Here they are mostly just sex objects (or the subjects of spousal infidelity and abuse), and you can see how it wouldn’t make much sense to attempt something more insightful. But there are two wives to pick from, one with a conscience (she had to go), and the other as unscrupulous in her own way as Belfont. Just because she too is vacuous in terms of values doesn’t mean the plot wouldn’t have benefited from such broadening. Indeed, it might have been just the kind of reinforcement endless redundant shots of coke snorted off tits fails to convey.
I’ve mentioned several of the actors on display (and many are most definitely on display). It’s an eclectic Scorsese cast as ever, and a mostly seamless one. You can’t help but be painfully conscious of all that weight Matt McC lost for Dallas Buyers Club. And I never expected to see Joanna Lumley in a Marty movie, less still in a clinch with Leo. Jon Bernthal does his best dense De Niro impression. Spike Jonze is typically oddball as the boiler room guy a little turned on by Jordan. Mackenzie Meehan’s ultra-coarse secretary Hildy is wonderful. Only Jean Dujardin seems a little out of place, falling prey to that thing of an international star in Hollywood ending up all-at-sea in the roles he lands.
For all the faults I’ve mentioned (what is frustrating about TWOWS, and a number of recent movies, is that it’s so close to greatness; in every case, issues come down to the script), this is the best Scorsese since he first stepped out with young Leo. I may be in the minority, but I rather favour his formal experimentation during the ’90s, taking in new genres and stylistic approaches. The likes of The Age of Innocence and Kundun are in some ways far flung masterpieces. Probably the last film of his I instantly adored (admittedly I haven’t seen it in a number of years) was the mostly maligned Bringing out the Dead. But this might be his first since Goodfellas to have the sense of immediacy that comes from a willingness to improvise. It’s both better (spontaneous invention) and worse (indulging such invention) for it.
As for its Oscar chances, at five nods it’s way back in field, with half the number of Gravity and American Hustle. There are six films with more nominations than TWOWS, so it will have its work cut out for it, if it’s to make any impression. But The Departed, a solid but minor-league Scorsese effort, was also nominated for only five awards, and took home four of them. At least they’re all meaty ones (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor and Adapted Screenplay). I certainly wouldn’t argue that DiCaprio and Scorsese aren’t firing on all cylinders, and no one could complain if they were awarded gongs (I don’t think either will be, however), but TWOWS simply doesn’t deserve Best Picture. It’s become very nearly a ritual to nominate the latest Scorsese film (Hugo and The Aviator had eleven each, Gangs of New York ten); Shutter Island is the only recent film of his that failed to get any attention, and that’s because it’s a bit shit.
No matter how terrible, I doubt that I’d actually walk out of a film unless it was eliciting some uncontrollable physical reflex from me. Or I’d eaten something nasty during the previous 24 hours. In which case I’d probably be running for the exit. Several people left during the screening I attended. Sometime after the point where Hill was waggling his wanger. That might sum up TWOWS, though. Eager to offend. Apparently, it sets a new record for uses of the word “fuck”, but if I hadn’t been told that, I wouldn’t have noticed.
TWOWS is just as extraordinary a piece of filmmaking but a much lesser film than Goodfellas. In the absence of insight or agenda or purpose, what we are left with is a three-hour film about a conscience free amoral huckster indulging himself over and over again and learning nothing. Gee, Marty, did you really need all that time to tell us something we know already, that finance guys are crooks and scum and don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves? Even Oliver Stone needed less time (Belfont was, tellingly, inspired by Gordon Gekko). How about some insight into the self-perpetuating system that beheads a few high-profile sacrificial lambs but leaves the juggernaut unscathed? No?
He certainly succeeds in showing the wanton profligacy, the abandon and decadence, but when there’s nothing else this becomes indulgence in need of an editor who’s not also a dear friend. The irony of criticising The Wolf of Wall Street is that it’s a highly entertaining movie. It just isn’t a very thoughtful or layered one. All it has to say is on the surface, with the defence that this is because Belfont is all on the surface. In that respect too, it’s not very far from Pain & Gain. Is it wrong to want more than confection for the eyes? In five years’ time, kids will be making Leo’s Belfont a role model the way he did Gekko. Which is a dubious achievement.