They say that “timing is everything,” and while I think there’s a lot of great filmmaking in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (including a virtuoso performance from Leonardo DiCaprio) the timing of the release and the complicity of its runtime feels downright dangerous to me.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets a job on Wall Street. His mentor (Matthew McConaughey) lets him in on two secrets to stay on top: always use cocaine and never let your semen get backed up. Oh, and make money for yourself, not your clients. The clients’ money exists in a gaping black hole, jumping from one hole to another. The only real money is what the broker makes off of moving their money void around to other voids. This is an entertaining scene, magnificently played by McConaughey. He beats his chest while he hums. The movie beats home this point and hums along for two and a half more hours.
Belfort’s first licensed job comes after the stock market crash of 1987. He’s let in on a scam during his job interview (a delightful cameo from Spike Jonze) at a podunk, ground-level illegal brokerage. It’s an unregulated brokerage because they sell penny stocks for companies that aren't on NASDAQ. The markup is 50%. Belfort takes his selling expertise and applies it to smaller stocks and makes millions, millions, millions of dollars off of poor people trying to get rich quick. Belfort teaches at his new company how to make a sale on these saps: he performers mime anal sex while trying to persuade a potential client. That’s all his scheme is: it’s fucking people who don’t check into things, people who can persuaded into trusting him. And then spending that money on hookers, drugs and bribes.
It’s a business model for immense Icarus success.
The remainder of The Wolf of Wall Street is showing the ridiculous and expensive things that Belfort and his co-workers do: group sex at the office, group sex on a plane, smoking crack, taking loads of ‘ludes, tossing midgets at a Velcro board, cheating on their wives, masturbating in public, etc. If the list feels long that’s because it’s a long list and there’s a lot of laundry.
There is a sort of gonzo, go for broke bravado that Scorsese is flexing and it’s pretty exciting for a while. But it feels as though Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter were reading Belfort’s memoir and were aghast at the types of things that these guys did. So they just kept filming. It starts to just feel like a loud dinner party conversation of someone saying, “You won’t believe this!” Followed by someone one-upping the previous joker with, “Oh yeah? Well, you won’t believe this!”
By the time a fourth orgy rolls around, it kinda doesn’t matter anymore. We get it: everything is plentiful when you’re printing money. By making the film as long as it is to fit in the escalating emasculations, Wolf becomes problematic.
First, by spending so much time with the antics of some pretty loathsome, invincible sacks of semen without examining their behavior it appears like Scorsese and Winter are in awe, which isn’t terribly interesting. Second, by being so in awe, and spending so much time erecting this statue to bad behavior, by the time Belfort’s downfall comes it feels like a letdown. He doesn’t fall hard. It’s pretty minor. The victims whose lives were ruined are never given a voice except for the one phone call where Belfort coaches his minions on how to screw the person they’re trying to sell.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a pièce de résistance to depravity, without giving an inch of resistance to the depravity.
Allow me to digress a little: I love the film Marie Antoinette. I love Sofia Coppola’s choice to never show the subjected class. The king and queen were so removed from those that they governed that when the citizens come to Versailles to overthrow her, they still aren’t shown. Instead Coppola fades out and then back in to show the destruction of their things. That’s what the French Revolution probably felt like to the royalty: it was a destruction of their beautiful home.
This is how separate Belfort and Wall Street is from the rest of us. We are just a blood source for their leeching. Belfort’s downfall probably felt similar. His palace was taken away. The reason why I like Coppola’s approach is because she made parallels by focusing on numerous centuries ago. For a film released during the widest gap there's been between rich and poor in the past century, the audience deserves more pushback to this entitlement. The focus on where Belfort stores his cocaine, and whose orifices he snorts it out of becomes less interesting and feels more complicit when it hits the two hour mark of “you won’t believe this!”
There’s a fantastic scene where Belfort invites an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) for a casual drink when he’s being investigated. He grants them permission to board his yacht. There’s a big American flag waving. He has two women aboard that Belfort would probably use to offer sex if he gets an inkling that the agent might be easy to buy. Their conversation is a chatty, charismatic beat-around-the-bush attempt at bribery. The agent doesn’t take the bait and instead says, “I’ll give it to you. Most Wall Street guys I investigate were born douchebags. Their fathers were douchebags. But somehow you became this all on your own.” Belfort takes this with minor pride that turns into rage, calling them poor and raining down “fun coupons” on them as they leave. “Fun coupons” are $100 bills.
This scene, though performed to perfection, doesn’t pack the payoff that it should because the majority of the film has been an escalating célèbre. For those who are on board with the it, the Chandler character is the villain for making the record skip at the party.
I cannot deny the greatness of DiCaprio’s performance, though. Particularly a certain ‘lude-filled tumble down the steps because he can’t stand up until he’s snorted enough cocaine to regain human strength. It’s a committed, screwball, demonic performance and it's the best of DiCaprio’s career.
Similarly, Scorsese is alive with amped-up technique: he breaks the fourth wall and he and his collaborator of years, editor Thelma Schoonmaker bounce back and forth with great energy.
However, The Wolf of Wall Street uses bodily humor to remove the contempt that the audience should be privy to. In a way, it bails out Wall Street all over again.
There’s a throwaway scene of Chandler on the subway looking at regular people; the people he feels that he serves. The events of Wolf are too recent to be so closed off from a little more of his or their point of view.
That’s my end-of-2013 point of view. Again, timing is everything. You can curse me for pissing on Scorcese’s statue. I’ll get back to you in a few years. Maybe I’ll scrub it off then. Wolf of Wall Street feels like a film that I might come around to in a few years.
Right now? Gimme a petition. "B – R – I …"