The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be — a broker?
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be —- a broker??”
It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Henry Hill’s opening confession at the beginning of Goodfellas. Scorsese’s seminal 1990 mob classic is the film to which The Wolf of Wall Street is compared the most, as both based on the true stories of men seduced by a decadent and corrupt lifestyle, and somehow emerge the other side of the inevitable fall, relatively unscathed and completely unrepentant.
Some critics have slammed The Wolf of Wall Street for glorifying unfettered greed and debauchery. I don’t have a problem with a film focussing on greed and debauchery, especially in Scorsese-world; after all, this is a director who has committed some of the most violent and repellent characters in movie history to the screen. My problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is just an awful movie, and that I can’t forgive.
The Wolf of Wall Street –
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, who works on Wall Street during the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987. He’s only a rookie, but he has seen enough of the lifestyle – the money, the drugs, the women, the excitement – for him to want more. He takes another job hard selling worthless stocks to anyone stupid enough to answer the phone to him. Belfort soon realises he can make serious cash pitching the penny stocks to clients with real money, so he starts up his own reputable sounding company, Stratton Oakmont, with a motley band of friends.
Belfort and his cronies make lots of money. They drink excessively, take shitloads of drugs, fuck gangs of hookers, throw massive bacchanalian parties, and generally act like a bunch of obnoxious arseholes. Belfort ditches his dependable first wife for a super hot lingerie model, Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), and cheats on her too, boasting about banging five or six hookers a week.
As Belfort’s wealth and notoriety grow, his practices fall under the scrutiny of the FBI, in an investigation headed up by modest agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). As the net closes, Belfort starts looking into various schemes to smuggle his vast wealth to a Swiss bank account.
Problem #1 – First Impressions….
Belfort and his cohorts are so despicably wealthy, and so repulsive in their behaviour, that in order for this film to work, the viewer needs a way in. Otherwise, you just spend three hours watching a bunch of assholes cavort around on the screen. This is where Scorsese makes his first, and by far the most fatal, stylistic error in putting together this film.
Consider the opening of Goodfellas, the film most thematically similar to Wolf… in Scorsese’s canon. It opens with a shocking scene of violence, with Henry (Ray Liotta), Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Tommy (Joe Pesci), realising their victim in the boot of their car isn’t quite dead yet. To remedy this situation, Tommy stabs the guy repeatedly with a carving knife, before Jimmy empties his revolver into him. Freeze frame on Henry’s face, Liotta in voice over – “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”.
Fine. Then watch what Scorsese does next to bring us into this lifestyle – after the credits, an extreme close up of a boy’s eye. Liotta’s voice over continues, bridging the credit sequence and making sure we know this boy is a young Henry Hill. An establishing shot of the neighbourhood, then a close up of Henry watching through the blinds. We then go around behind Hill, looking over his shoulder at the street below. The next shot is a full point-of-view shot, so we’re now watching the action subjectively through Hill’s eyes.
The next thing we know, Henry is running around doing chores for the local mobsters, and as he gets seduced by the lifestyle, so do we, despite the horrific act of violence we saw first. That first crucial sequence of shots almost subliminally links the viewer with Hill, and after that, we’re part of his life, and implicit in his actions.
Scorsese does a similar thing at the beginning of Taxi Driver – the first time we see Travis Bickle (De Niro), it is a close up of his eyes, then Scorsese flips to behind him so we see through the windscreen of his taxi, then into a POV so we can see what Bickle is looking at.
Scorsese goes in a different direction with The Wolf of Wall Street, using a distancing technique most notable at the beginning of Raging Bull and The King of Comedy.
At the beginning of Raging Bull, we see Jake La Motta (De Niro) warming up in the ring, in slow motion. He’s the other side of the ring, and he’s got the hood of his robe up, so we can’t even see his face. Most crucially, the ropes of the ring are between us and the boxer. The ropes can also be seen as a visual motif, as a cage or the bars of a cell – an introductory caption a few moments later with La Motta staring straight at the camera also recalls a police mugshot – but crucially serve to put a physical barrier between the viewer and the character.
In The King of Comedy, deranged wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro again), isn’t even the first character we see – it is the object of his obsession, the chatshow host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lee Lewis). Here, the physical division is transparent – it is the glass wall of the TV screen. When we first see Pupkin, it is through crowds of Langford fans waiting outside for autographs. By the time we reach Scorsese’s trademark freeze frame, when Pupkin has rescued Langford from the demented Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin is also viewed through glass, his face obscured by Masha’s hand.
This is the difference, and why I believe The Wolf of Wall Street is such an intensely dislikeable film – it needed a Goodfellas or Taxi Driver introduction to Belfort to make his actions bearable, because in both those films, the subtle subjectivity of the shot selection identifies the viewer with the character. Instead, Scorsese went with the distancing option – instead of freeze framing on Belfort’s face as DiCaprio’s voiceover kicks in, we freeze frame on the face of a flying dwarf.
It almost seems like an in-joke on Scorsese’s penchant for freeze frames, and he switches to a freeze frame of DiCaprio’s contorted mug in the next shot, but that stylistic choice serves to distance us instantly from the character. By the time we get a significant close up of DiCaprio in full motion, the damage is already done, after a catalogue of his abhorrent lifestyle.
Problem #2 – Morrie & Other Victims…
Other critics have demonised The Wolf of Wall Street because it doesn’t show the victims of Belfort’s scams, and therefore shows a complete lack of empathy.
This is certainly true. Without victims there is also no dramatic tension, which is bearable in a two-hour movie, but crippling in a three-hour one. In Goodfellas, victims are everywhere – Billy Batts in the boot of the car; victimised bartender “Spider; and Morrie, the jovial, big-mouthed wig salesman who falls foul of Jimmy and his gang.
Consider two scenes – in Goodfellas, Jimmy and Henry visit Morrie’s wig shop. Jimmy wants the money he loaned Morrie for a TV commercial, plus a substantial vig. Morrie is belligerent about paying up, feeling that Jimmy is taking advantage of him. Morrie doesn’t seem to understand that Jimmy is not his friend, he is a dangerous mobster, and Henry tries talking some sense into him.
Jimmy snaps and starts throttling Morrie with a telephone cable, demanding the money back. Morrie’s wig comes off, and he finally relents.
In The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort is talking to a client on the phone, selling him worthless shares. He has the customer on speaker phone so his trainees can hear how his techniques work. As the client reluctantly buckles under the hard-sell, Belfort is making obscene gestures and mimicking fucking the guy in the ass – completely disrespectful, utterly callous, and his acolytes find it hilarious.
Both scenes are played for comic effect. The difference is, we can see Morrie as he is being throttled. We’ve met him before and although he’s pretty irritating, he seems like a decent guy, so we can sympathise with him, even though it’s funny that his wig is coming off.
In The Wolf… scene, the victim is just a disembodied voice. We don’t know who he is, can’t see him, so feel no sympathy towards him. Because we haven’t been implicated in Belfort’s world the way we had with Henry Hill’s, we don’t take any joy from his victories, or fear for him when things go bad. We only despise him as he revels in his wealth, and look forward to some comeuppance.
By showing the victims in Goodfellas, we genuinely feel frightened for the characters as the violence escalates – especially Henry’s wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), as she suspects Jimmy might target her. In their world, even the winners become victims in the end.
Other Problems –
Reportedly, Scorsese struggled to trim the film down to three hours, which is concerning. Scorsese’s films have seemed a bit flabby over the past fifteen years, most notably Gangs of New York and The Aviator. Since The Wolf of Wall Street is virtually plotless, I’m sure even the most casual viewer could probably identify scenes that could be trimmed, or cut completely. Half an hour of cuts, or even an hour, would make this an infinitely better film.
Even the film’s comic centrepiece, when Belfort and his best friend Donnie (Jonah Hill) get wasted on quaaludes, just drags on forever. And most damagingly, it is one of only a handful of memorable scenes in the whole film – and then, we’re just watching two guys acting like they’re off their tits. Compare that scene to the brilliant Rubber Biscuit drinking scene in Mean Streets, which really makes you feel like you’re drunk too.
Since most of the scenes are weak, the soundtrack gets lost in the mix – there are plenty of songs on The Wolf of Wall Street soundtrack, but I couldn’t link any of them to any particular scene. Previously, one of Scorsese’s signature moves was picking exactly the right song for exactly the right scene, and he was doing it years before Tarantino rolled up and made it his thing.
Think Be My Baby over the opening credits of Mean Streets, Then He Kissed Me accompanying Henry & Karen through the kitchens of the Copacabana in Goodfellas; or Sunshine of Your Love in the same film, as the paranoid Jimmy scans the bar, contemplating killing his crew.
Lastly, and most disturbingly, is Scorsese’s apparent admiration for his revolting characters, and his depiction of women in the film. Scorsese’s world has always been ultra-macho, and his films rarely offer up plum roles for actresses – most female parts are dumb girlfriends or nagging wives. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Belfort and his cronies see women as just something to fuck, a sentiment seemingly shared by Scorsese; there are several gratuitous shots of Margot Robbie naked, offered up almost as a wow factor for his male audience, as if to say; “Hey guys, isn’t she super hot? Bet you’d love to nail her!”
The Wolf of Wall Street has absolutely no edge to it, no subtext at all. It is not a satire, it is not a black comedy – it just uncritically portrays the shenanigans of these horrible characters in a larky, matey way, as if to say: “Looks brilliant, doesn’t it?” – which is irresponsible film making from a master film maker, particularly in an era of financial strife.
The lack of subtext creates a subtext all of its own – suddenly you’re thinking, “Does Scorsese think this shit is actually good? Does he envy these people and their lifestyle? Does he wish he was part of that?” Because it certainly looks that way, as his handling of the material is bordering on sycophantic.
I’ve heard some people argue that The Wolf of Wall Street is deliberately overlong, deliberately excessive, deliberately sexist, etc, etc to make the viewer feel the excesses of Belfort’s world. That, to use an underused academic term, is Bollocks. You don’t need to actually bore an audience to show something is boring, in the same way as you don’t need to actually be sexist to show your characters are sexist. Mary Haddon’s American Psycho far more effectively satirised the greed and excess of the same era without ever being greedy or excessive – she nailed the shallowness, ego, machismo and pervasive sexism of that environment without wallowing in it.
I never felt immersed in Belfort’s world the way its apologists say it is intended – because Scorsese never finds a way into Belfort as a character, I never felt excited, titillated, or any other particular emotion throughout the whole film. That The Wolf of Wall Street is overlong, boring, messy, ugly to look at, misogynistic, misanthropic, and shallow isn’t a masterplan by a master filmmaker – it’s just bad directing, and The Wolf of Wall Street is simply a bad film.
Posted on 30/01/2014, in Drama, Film, Movies, Reviews, W and tagged Goodfellas, Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Raging Bull, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.