Despite his status as a big time Hollywood director, Martin Scorsese deserves consideration as an auteur who can still assert his independent ethos to produce work that does not neatly fall into the category of classical Hollywood cinema. Sadly, his latest work reveals what can go wrong when such a talent goes unchecked. There’s something rather soulless and harrowing about his latest picture, The Wolf of Wall Street. It reveals the travesty of self-indulgence on many levels, and the ultimate victim is the viewer.
The news in advance of this film was it needed to be cut back from an original four-hour run-time. Recently Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, participated in an interview where she revealed Scorsese had considered releasing the Wolf in two parts (read the interview). One can only wonder how much easier to swallow the film might have been in two doses and whether there had been some subtlety lost in cutting out an hour’s worth of material for the endurance test that ultimately saw release. Might the repetitive Bacchanalia seemed less redundant? Could there have been some actual character development that allowed you to care for the asshole dweebs that constantly rampage across the screen?
The film follows the rise and fall of coke-snorting, lude-popping, prostitute-fucking, slick-talking king swindler Jordan Belfort (a kinetic, unrelenting Leonardo DiCaprio). His talents are revealed during orgies and phone conversations, not to mention several speeches to his crew. For three grueling hours, the Wolf of Wall Street agonizingly drones on toward an inevitable conclusion that just does not come soon enough. Why did this film have to carry on so long and feature so many monologues by such a despicable character? I just wanted to see this asshole jailed already. Instead of feeling moved by the slight crash down to earth for this character, by the end, all I felt was relief that this mean movie had ended.
The film is a satirical affair based on a real human being and his autobiography, also titled The Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort was one of those late ‘80s masters of the universe who eschewed any sense of principle for maximum profit. “Was any of this legal?” he says. “Absolutely not.” He worked his way toward the big fish investors by offering penny stocks in unreal shiny packages of bullshit. The slimy con man reels them in using only words and enthusiasm. It doesn’t matter what junk he peddles, they buy it (Belfort has since moved on to become a motivational speaker). The investors invest in crap, and Belfort reaps the commission.
Soon, Jordan has created an industry using just a telemarketing script and a stable of petty drug dealers eager to learn the language that will sucker almost anyone to give up their money. Over the course of the film, we only watch Belfort grow richer. He upgrades his car, his house, his boat and even his wife. All the while, the film gives him nary a redeeming moment to even give one shit about him.
The decadence of after-work parties that include orgies in the office as soon as trading stops are complexly choreographed affairs that will leave you reeling in disgust or delight as horror and humor collide with a reckless sense of tone. Cocaine and Quaaludes freely flow, as does degradation of humanity, particularly to women. Greed is the ultimate motivator for both the wolves and the prey. Early in the film, during one party at the office a woman takes center stage to have her long hair shaved off for $10,000, which she plans to spend on breast implants. It’s a moment of stark depravity that has a rather tragic resonance for any sense of pity for these characters.
For much of the film, you follow Jordan at the height of his most unsympathetic. One cannot even call this man a misanthrope. He’s just an asshole. There is never a moment where he struggles with his conscience. The film never seems to consider the victims. All we know of them are their muffled voices on the other side of a telephone lines. Jordan speaks to them of the riches they are bound to gain while giving the phone receiver a stiff quavering middle finger and silently mouthing the words “fuck you!” while his lackeys gather around and snicker. Jordan seems to hate his customers for their greed, despite how much of his own greed he is satisfying.
It’s a smart depiction, but after seven or eight similar examples featuring gimmicky, jokey scenes that includes cocaine snorted off ass cracks, Jordan’s right-hand Donnie (Jonah Hill) whipping out his dick in the middle of a party to beat off to Jordan’s future next wife (Margot Robbie) and Jordan experimenting with a dominatrix who sodomizes him with a candle, the point is made. It doesn’t matter whether you change the music, the setting or vary the speed of the film. There needs to be a sense of something beyond the greed preying on the greedy to merit this film’s languorous duration of indulgence. Otherwise it all just feels voyeuristic, inane, cruel and pointless.
One of the film’s few interesting moments happens way too late to redeem this film. After OD-ing on Quaaludes at a country club, Jordan crashes so hard he calls it a “cerebral palsy high.” Just then, an emergency that could incriminate his racket arises, and he must drag himself to his Lamborghini during a moment of drawn-out slapstick. When he arrives at home, after crawling down the street, he feels some pride at having driven the car the one mile without even scratching it. The following morning, however, it’s another story.
That duality of perspective is essential to contrast the often romantic presentation of the character’s slash and burn ride to his mountain of millions. It’s a shame Scorsese cannot present enough moments like this. When the final scene arrives, offering a hint of a more grounded world featuring more common men, it’s just too late. You have to wonder where these people were throughout the entirety of much of this high-pitched movie, which screeches along like some speed metal album without any dynamics.
There’s just hardly any sense of humanity in The Wolf of Wall Street. The film feels like watching voracious garbage disposers noisily grind up refuse. You’re just glad when the noise finally stops and all that trash has run its course. All you’re left with, in the end, however, is a greasy residue of emptiness. One should expect more from the director who gave us Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.
The Wolf of Wall Street runs 180 minutes and is rated R (beyond unchecked Scorsese, there’s lots more to be offended by). It opened pretty much everywhere in the U.S. yesterday, Dec. 25. Paramount Pictures hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.