The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s 2013 quasi-biopic of American greed and self-destruction in the ’90s has a number of very notable factors acting in its favor. Primarily, it has Martin Scorsese really just tearing up the cinematic joint. Here, he’s a cavalier madman again, a persona he hasn’t adopted in a long while. The Wolf of Wall Street is less interested in telling a narrative than in expounding upon destructive impulses and raw propulsion, and the fact that the film adopts the disorderly persona of its main characters is almost categorically a civic good.
Secondly, Leonardo DiCaprio throws himself into the role of Jordan Belfort, the early ’90s capitalist fat-cat du jour, like a deranged madman – as a performance the closet thing it approximates is loose-limbed, improvisational jazz, and it’s a stunning display of pure physicality and cognitively-dissonant charisma. This too is of no small import, as he’s the center of the film. The Wolf of Wall Street is touted by many as a “film about us”, and that’s true in the sense of its emphasis on American debauchery and inequality more prevalent today than in the ’90s the film depicts. But it is also a film uniquely about Jordan Belfort, a singular man who could convince just about anyone to follow him, and who is depicted less as a villain or a conflicted person than a living “performance” of a human being, having no inside core other than to perform his wealth. The film’s attitude toward him is mocking, yes, but it also undeniably sees his charisma for the undeniable appeal it breeds.
Finally, a number of scenes are down-right astounding, most notably a late-film sequence where Jordan, having ingested Quaaludes, struggles to make his way to his car and get home despite the fact that he can barely move. Scorsese has a field day with the dissonance between Belfort’s eternally active, hopped-up-on-his-own-ego mind, and the sloppy, meaty mass of a body he can no longer control. And here, more than anywhere, the length of the film is a great boon to its pure cinematic entertainment.
Of course, that back-handed compliment also brings us to the film’s greatest flaw: the length. There is absolutely, positively no excuse in the world for this film’s three hour-length. It’s not just that scenes could have been cut out whole-sale, but that the scenes that do work go on for far too long. This is not only a shame, but a damn surprise considering Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker handling editing duties here (the idea that the woman who edited Raging Bull, one of the most piercingly and deliriously cut and chopped films ever made, in fact a film whose greatest strength is its cluttered, angry editing, could have let this pass muster is almost unbelievable). It plays almost as if Scorsese, now known for making INCREDIBLY-LONG movies, felt obligated to prove his medal by making his most impenetrably long work ever. Except, while those other films were dark, intentionally cumbersome mob epics, this is a manic, over-the-top comedy – no film bearing that description should exceed 100 minutes, and the ideal would be less than 90.
Which brings us to the fact that this film is a curious hodgepodge that never quite finds its footing in any style. It plays like an amalgamation of Scorsese’s own laborious epics, which are all about making us feel their labor, and an anarchic, playful comedy, and the two wholly fail to meld. The narrative, as it is, doesn’t just threaten to kill momentum; it stops the film dead in its tracks. And the jokey, off-the-cuff tone of the film hinders any dramatic interaction with the characters as meaningful human-beings. It’s a shame – the idea of a Scorsese-directed madcap screwball comedy sounds almost deliriously appealing, but in making the film, Scorsese just had to go and be Scorsese. And this isn’t to say anything about the film’s gender relations – attempts to critique misogyny are notorious for their inability to not imbibe in the very misogyny they ostensibly criticize, and this film is no different.
What all of this amounts to is an often delicious film that never quite works as more than a collection of poisonously unfocused scenes (the first hour in particular is a criminal case in boundless over-sizing). A number of those scenes happen to be great, but a little of this messy abandon goes a long way. And three hours is anything but little. As it is, the film both gives us the penetrating high of life on the edge and drags it on for so long we can’t but feel the paranoia and the crash of getting too close to that edge. An odd, and maybe purposeful approximation of Belfort’s life as a man who had so much fun he forgot to stop and notice the fun wasn’t fun anymore. A noble case study in a film mimicking its subject matter, a film where style and subject exist in perfect harmony, but not something that couldn’t have been accomplished with less fat still.
Curiously, David O. Russell actually succeeded more at creating his 2013 crime-as-comedy pseudo-epic, American Hustle, than Martin Scorsese did. Who’d a thunk? Admittedly, the difference is largely one of length – American Hustle is a full 40 minutes shorter than The Wolf of Wall Street, and that rounds off so many of that film’s rough edges it’s hard to even count. It allows, more than anything else, for the film to maintain its breezy, light-on-its-feet screwball zaniness from beginning to damn near the final moments of the film (it still could use a cut by about 30 minutes) – while The Wolf of Wall Street collapses under its own weight, American Hustle has no weight at all to collapse under.
It happens to fail completely at character identification or drama, but that’s almost besides the point. For this would-be grand crime narrative, which looked if anything to be a gritty study-of-capitalism Scorsese knock-off, actually knocks-off Scorsese’s 2013 film, which happened to be, tonally, nothing like any other Scorsese movie, before it was even released. This is not in the slightest a serious examination of American life in the 1970s or a tough-as-nails exploration of social paranoia of the consequences of human greed. It is, quite literally, a glitzy actor’s showcase hopped up on lurid, manic, off-kilter charm and zest, a true successor to the deft sleight-of-hand of The Sting or, going back even further, a ’30s screwball comedy.
It’s no surprise then that the biggest high of the film is watching its actors ( mostly from the casts of Russell’s two most recent films) going at it (he captures here, far more than his somewhat misguided 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, the exuberant thrill of just watching people shout at and over each other for extended periods of time – fitting considering his long history of yelling at actors on set. He seems to get loopy energy from angry shouting and wants to give that “gift” to his audience). The most entertaining performances are given by Amy Adams, who boasts a thrillingly and pointedly terrible accent, and Bradley Cooper, whose distilled, pure confidence in himself gives way to a number of beautifully constructed reaction shots when he realizes his own idiocy – both appear completely in on the joke. Elsewhere, Jennifer Lawrence manages to fill her second appearance in two years in a Russell film with another woefully underwritten part, doing here what she can with it, and at the center of it all Christian Bale creates the façade of depth amidst all the tomfoolery around him.
Unfortunately, it’s telling that the film’s best scene is it’s only slow one, and it’s first. Christian Bale, playing con-man Irving Rosenfeld, wakes up and spends a good long time applying product and fitting into place a deliciously 70’s wig to hide his comb-over, all presented in a commandingly still long take. It is, by far, the truest, most lived-in bit in the whole film, and the one that Russell clearly enjoys the most, despite never even attempting to go there again. In other words, the film’s strength, its breezy charm, is also its minor undoing, in the sense that there is really nothing to the film but this breeziness. Everything in the film, even its attitude toward its con-men characters, is breezily genial. Even in its sarcasm, the film makes fun of its characters, but it undeniably finds sympathy with many of them.
Thus, “poking fun” at greed is more appropriate than “mocking” in describing the film’s tone, which is even lighter and less interested in critiquing greed than The Wolf of Wall Street. Russell’s increasingly light touch and populist filmmaking win out in the end, with even the exploration of political corruption notable for its light-hearted depiction of a corrupt politician using his corruption for the good of his town (as opposed to the normative view of corruption as a categorical bad). The film is buoyant from beginning to end, moving from scene to scene less like a narrative than an improvisational jazz spectacle, eternally operating on a “high”.
The “con” aspect of the film also undeniably breeds a slightly more subversive connection to Hollywood – a commentary on how movie-making manufactures thrills for us as a con and we undeniably follow even to our lesser interests. Yet the film’s cheery tone toward its characters also speaks to an appreciation for a good con, and thus a good film that tricks us into liking itself despite the fact that it’s all basically just a loudly stated, well-intentioned lie (the film’s opening moments literally mock the film’s “based on a true story” aspirations, and gleefully proclaim the film as pure bullshit despite the “serious” aspirations many audience members may have for it). Russell is very much in love with movies, and clearly has fun making them- the film is infectious, and it plays like an open statement to the power of making an entertaining “movie” rather than a film of nuance or depth. More simply, the film is too funny and too manically, almost destructively, energetic to be less than “pretty good”, although it’s mess of a narrative and complete and utter lack of nuance or cohesion tries awfully hard to convince otherwise. This is a true case of a film “winning” an audience over in spite of itself, quite literally a proud-of-itself con. The film is what it depicts, and that’s a thing of rare, if messy, beauty.