The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Martin Scorsese)

Same shit, different day. Martin Scorsese must’ve blessed the heavens for stockmarket crook and dullard author Jordan Belfort’s existence — it lets him make yet another movie about a overgrown infant who behaves badly in the same routine fashions: snorting, abusing, slapping, raping, breaking laws, always surrounded by bros who are halfway between grotesque sitcom and grotesque infomercial. The women — well, don’t even mention them. Their only duty is to complain and look hot and find ways to keep the boys from having their fun. Marty sez you can’t protest: this is real life, after all! In adapting Belfort’s memoir, the famous director does just what you’d expect, in stark contrast to the unusually humane Hugo: attempting to make some sort of moral scold but also gleefully admiring of the things he’s filming, he melds stern chaos from a senator’s do-gooder stump speech into a moral trap of sorts for his audience.

The effect is numbing; because its only purpose is to shock, it’s incapable of doing so, and meanwhile the frat-bro audience laughs it up and Scorsese, having taken pains to present the thing as a breezy (if audaciously overlong, at three hours) comedy despite its Very Serious Point, pretends he doesn’t want them to. Is Jonah Hill as Belfort’s cruel asshole of a hanger-on, who gazes upon Belfort with admiring wonder, meant to be an audience vessel? Or is it Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent who vaguely represents the 99 percenters in the crowd, despite his positioning as a feared baddie? I bet Scorsese would have a different answer than most people who saw the film. Woefully enough, Chandler’s character’s presence is this movie’s only direct concession that Belfort’s crimes had any effect on the larger world and the people he swindled, which makes it a sort of post-recession The Godfather, also about a bubble of crime mounted as bizarre escapism.

Truthfully, however, The Wolf of Wall Street is moralistic in a way that Scorsese’s own Goodfellas and the turgid Casino were not. Maybe times have changed since then. Although Leo DiCaprio’s slobbering egotist (Belfort himself) does little that his predecessors in the director’s filmography did not, I was amusingly warned before entering the theater that this film contained “very extreme content,” and I had to give my verbal consent that I, a human adult in my thirties, was okay with seeing these terrible, terrible things. The rating on the poster’s suddenly not enough? But no, there is nothing objectionable here except the usual, director-trademarked ecstatic rolling around in stuff that we’re supposed to think is despicable (every time the film turns down the debauchery for a while, we’re anxious for it to come back). The film is almost laughably explicit about its opinion of Belfort. His antics are most appealing when he is at his most pathetic — as in an admittedly brilliant sequence that has him and Jonah Hill off their asses on quaaludes. A zonked-out DiCaprio trying to enter his vehicle is honest-to-goodness one of the most balletic moments of physical comedy since Chaplin.

I wish Chaplin had figured in Scorsese’s vision more — it could’ve made this an act of catharsis against the sort of assholes who led us to the mess we’re in economically, rather than a perverse bit of anti-hero worship and cartoonish villainy. One of the things that could’ve made this film more interesting is if it were consistently so funny and imaginative — and over-the-top, or ignorant that there even is a top. It’s not as if its “satire” is particularly subtle anyway; making Belfort a true cartoon — as the histrionic responses to this have bafflingly suggested he already is — might have made for a risky and insightful movie. As it is, this is too much Goodfellas in a new skirt. It begs to be a comedy, to be audacious, but even though “Gimme Shelter” never blares from the soundtrack, we’re shown very little that’s not familiar. And it’s an hour too long, with easily a quarter of its scenes unnecessary and twice as many that could be shortened by a lot, but frankly we all knew that before we walked into Scorsese’s room full of constant sex and commodified, misogynistic violence. (It’s interesting that the film’s parade of naked bodies and mechanical fucking is so florescent, unnatural and boring, like an L.A. porn video. The only sensual moments in the film are a full on shot of DiCaprio’s gorgeous Renaissance painting of an ass and a smug grin from an angry, completely dressed female lawyer near the end (Ashlie Atkinson), who looks like a real person and appears to feel about as finished with Jordan as we do by then.)

It’s a tired point, but for all of Scorsese’s technical mastery, he hasn’t much of a clue about people or how they truly operate — except, that is, his target audiences. I didn’t fully agree with David Edelstein’s review but he hit on what probably keeps me from enjoying most of Scorsese’s movies. “Martin Scorsese continues his worship of masculine energy: energy for its own sake, energy as a means of actualizing the self, energy because there’s nothing worse in Scorsese’s cosmos than passivity, which inevitably translates as impotence.” Going all the way back to the histrionic acting out of De Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, it’s just not something I can relate to. I mean, when Jordan’s screaming at his wife and throwing punches and all that, I get that it’s supposed to make me think about machismo or whatever, but it just looks like an especially intense night at acting class. Scorsese’s movies don’t generally feel very real to me.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s Scorsese’s responsibility to make sure that modern day traders or ordinary bros are not misinterpreting his movie. And it would be pretty difficult to read this in such a way that you come away thinking you want to be a pathetic jerk like Jordan. (There’s a particular moment near the end involving the FBI agent that some are looking at as “crime pays” but that I read as “the world looks so much better when you step out from under that cloud of wealth and coke.”) But it does look to me like there’s something cynical to the way this is mounted. It’s definitely designed to be easily mistaken for a film that celebrates all its brash behaviors with total free-reign frivolity, and that’s probably because it’s good for box office. Celebrating the crass things you condemn is the cheapest morality-play tactic, I think. When Marion takes the money in Psycho, why does she decide to put it back? Because people who steal things are evil and even though she’s having the time of her life (……) she might get caught, or because she has a hard-won epiphany that she’s about to short-circuit her own freedom, and she knows she can count on the fact that every human being has considered doing something terrible at some point? Nothing internal like that goes on here — everything is flailing arms, yelling.

The biggest crime here is that Scorsese overcompensates, since frauding people isn’t as visually exciting or easily shorthanded as some other sorts of boyish misbehavior. Belfort’s deceit and shame are quite simple, really; he’s a crook. His being a wealth-flaunting crook and an abuser (there are two rape scenes, and they are tossed off with disgusting casualness) has little to do with his predilection for hard and soft drugs, kinky sex and wild parties; that’s changing the subject, and simplifying all that as code for his direct evil makes the guy look better than he deserves. At times, the film is fun, which makes its inconsistency infuriating — when it revels in casual cruelty domestic and otherwise like a grand commercial for its own righteousness, it’s a bore. When DiCaprio snafus us with the cheerily perverse rhythm of his gross decadence or when he rubs up against Chandler, it’s potently funny or dramatic. When it renders him pathetic but still recognizably, distressingly real, it’s hilarious — again, in the way that a political comic can be a salve. See it for the ‘ludes scene, for god’s sake — it’s as grand as advertised, and if sitting through this is the only way you can justify accessing it, have at it. As such, most of the memorable bits are the parts that we pretend we’re clucking our tongues at when we leave. Wasn’t that an incisive portrait of horrible deplorable actions by monstrous people, honey?? Honey, can we pick up some candles on the way home?

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