By Mikhail Karadimov March 24th, 2014
The Wolf of Wall Street
dir. by Martin Scorsese
The Wolf of Wall Street.
Sigh…this one’s a tough wrestle.
This is far from a perfect film; instead, like The Counselor and Cloud Atlas—but with a hell of a lot more craft—Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is an ambitiously confused mess of a movie. It’s unstructured, bloated on the back end, void of humanity, and just way too much. Here’s the question, though: has this always been Scorsese’s intention? Or has he lost his ability to shout “CUT!” with any really authority or sense? Is it all arbitrary navigation through choppy, unchartered waters? Or is the picture’s chaotic quality meant to reflect the chaos of Jordan Belfort’s “anything goes” world? Lets tick off the checklist. Midgets chucked through the air as human darts? Check. A chimp on skates delivering mail? Check. Wall Street maniacs blowing coke into their hookers’ asses? Check. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill giving it their gonzo best to bust the picture’s frame and spill out into the aisles and seats and choke and cram and blow your senses up with more gusto, more visual depravity than Michael Bay could ever hope to shove into a single frame of his lumbering headache of a Transformers series? Check. This is a big movie. Gargantuan! Can’t even call it Felliniesque, because to call it that would dwarf Scorsese’s ideas of spectacle.
Even “spectacle” doesn’t seem to fit the picture right.
Some have argued that Scorsese’s lost it, that he’s simply turned in a work that borders on self-parody, a hopeless pursuit to reignite himself with old techniques and old means of shock. While others swear that Wolf proves that the man’s still got that insatiable hunger and vitality that incites only the youngest of filmmakers—that he’s shooting with the virility of a spurred-up stud. And then you have those who’re lambasting Scorsese for his moral ineptitude, criticizing him for his glorification of Jordan’s lavish, balls-to-the-wall lifestyle. They’re main complaint stems from the film’s lack of comeuppance. Jordan is off scot-free by film’s end. As he himself narrates to us—a narration that occasionally breaks the fourth wall as Belfort walks the floors of his Stratton Oakmont firm and addresses us direct about the legality of his pink slip operation—Jordan was scared shitless about the prospect of hitting the clink, as white and pretty as he was. But then, just as the bus lurches off to his new ball-and-chain digs, he remembers: “I’m rich.” And rich he is, as he’s shuttled off to white-collar prison, where the fences stand as mere suggestion: “Stay. Don’t stay. Do whatever you want.” It’s the complete antithesis to Henry (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas who’s last seen in front of his boring Midwestern home, in his robe and slippers, totally stripped of all the luxury the mafia life afforded him. In Wolf , we see Jordan, worry-free, swinging a tennis racquet as a group of “convicts” perform yoga behind him. Of course, this isn’t the final shot of the movie. Judging by the haphazard makeup caked onto DiCaprio’s face by movie’s end—an unflattering addition of some years and wrinkles—we’re meant to take his Sydney-based business seminars as a testament of his fall from grace. Echoing a scene from the film’s exhilarating first act—the round-up scene in the diner where Jordan’s merry band of pranksters take form—Jordan goes from one seminar participant to the next, hands them a pen, and asks them, “Sell me this pen.” None of them can. None of them know how to pinpoint that blurry line between wants and needs. They’re peons, and like all peons they can’t possibly fathom what this man demands of them, what he demands of anyone—even of himself. No one can fathom the life he’s lived, the stupendously extravagant surrealism of his former means. Yet they know they want it, even without understanding it. They want the money; they want the unfathomable extravagance, the surrealism. Who are these people? Why are we stuck with them at the end of the film? Why couldn’t we just end it with Jordan in prison, with a wink and a nudge? Because, Scorsese has one more thing to say, wedged in there at the end. As Jordan steps from person to person offering his pen, his wealth of slick-huckster wisdom, as all of them stumble and misspeak, the shot lifts up, up above the front row’s dumbly fixed heads and shows us a reflection of ourselves—the stupefied peanut gallery. We’re confronted with ourselves. This is how Scorsese perceives us—the very audience that Jordan broke the fourth wall to talk to. About the scheming, the depravity, the ‘ludes, the blue-chip hookers, the convivial mayhem. Scorsese spins the mirror on us and lets us know, “You, too, are complicit in all this. You laughed, you cheered, you wanted more, more, more. Your intents are just as dubious.”
Scorsese seems to be saying: “Who are you to judge?”
Still. Is that enough to justify every single minute of the three-hours before it? Are we really the only one’s reveling in the free-for-all? Are the actors themselves not maybe playing out all their wildest fantasies, too? Isn’t Scorsese? The film was heavily improvised. Not all the dialogue we hear comes directly from Terrence Winter’s amorphous script. These are words spun straight out of the actors’ psyche. Does this suggest that maybe we should thumb our noses at DiCaprio and co., too? At Scorsese for allowing it all to happen? Is it even Scorsese’s job to draw lines and tell us what’s wrong and what’s right, what’s moral, what’s immoral? Is it anyone’s job? To a degree, aren’t we all capable of Belfort-inspired depravity given the financial means to do so?
I don’t know. I really don’t. But it’s this ambivalence that makes the film so interesting.
Moral quandaries aside, the first two/thirds of Wolf—everything leading up to the already infamous Quaalude scene where DiCaprio finally proves, without a doubt, just how physical and funny he can be—is the most fun you’re bound to have in the movies this year—err…last year. Hands down, it’s the funniest comedy of the year—The Hangover fully realized by a master craftsman. The picture first jolts to life when Matthew McConaughey’s loose and whirly Mark Hanna arrives to usher the audience—vis-à-vis Jordan—into this wild, new world of stock brokerage and teach us the beats, the lingo, the groove. He’s there to prepare our expectations as well as our tolerance for the bedlam waiting in the wings. He literally eases Jordan—and by proxy, us—into the film’s idiosyncratic tune with a tribal-tempo chest beat. In a way, Hanna is there to reassure us that the foul language, the endless titillation, the drugs, the bad behavior is all okay. It’s par for the course. Hey, that’s Wall Street for you! It’s as if Scorsese and Winter decided to hedge their bets in case the picture proves too disagreeable with anyone’s sensibility.
As inspired as the Quaalude scene is—although, it should be argued that the scene’s nearly deflated with Scorsese’s failure to scrap the on-the-nose parallel to Popeye slogging down his signature can of spinach as Jordan saves Donnie (Jonah Hill) from suffocating on a wad of masticated deli meat—it’s the diner scene where Jordan rallies the troops for his Stratton Oakmont venture that strikes me as the funniest in the film. It’s our first introduction to Jordan’s friends and cohorts, all of whom are terribly grotesque and physically disproportionate from the typical image you would conjure of a Wall Street wolf. These aren’t your McConaugheys of the world. They’re something more mundane. They’re you and I. They’re the very people they come to rob. One rocks an improbable hairpiece, another has a torso too big for his head, a third is fat and flabby and wears a pedophile’s mustache. They all look like cartoons, but innocuously so. The most egregiously stacked is Donnie Azoff, Jordan’s right hand man. His teeth are capped with blinding phosphorescence. His hair’s curled to the max, and then curled some more with the adhesive stick of krazy glue gel. He wears the brightest of clothes—pink sweaters, sky-blue ties, plaid-striped shorts. And he’s married to his cousin. His first cousin. And has two kids with her. Why? Because he couldn’t stand the thought of other people looking at his hot cousin. These are our kings, our rulers of the world. Our Great American Millionaires. Aren’t they pretty? Even Jordan can’t avoid the gaudy, with his shoddy jet-black dye job. The dye sinks in deep and blackens his scalp with a fixed line that edges out beneath his hairline, like something out of a cartoon. Hey! Maybe the Popeye reference works after all!
The film is fun. It’s undeniable. There’s plenty of eye-candy here, plenty of laughs, tons of madcap zaniness perfectly suited for us 21st-century sense-seekers. But it’s bloated. Way too bloated. Exhaustingly so. The film could’ve been twenty minutes shorter. Thelma Schoonmaker has been praised from here to Timbuktu for cutting the film to a manageable three-hour running time given the surplus of improvised footage. I was unaware that that’s all it takes to gain praise as an editor: to cut your film together from a pile of takes. Yes, sure, it’s impressive: Schoonmaker cut a movie out of mountains of footage—does anyone even know for sure how insurmountable this raw footage was?—but that’s not enough. The picture’s still jiggling with fat. It’s loaded heavy with spurts of Apatowian riff-offs that could have easily been cut from the greater film. There are moments when these riffs harm the dramatic integrity of individual scenes. After railing at Jordan and his cronies for their insane expenditures at their most recent “business dinner”—a dinner that runs them something north of a 100k—Jordan’s father, so lovingly dubbed Mad Max, for his over-the-top temper, sits down with Jordan, as his accountant, and tries to point out to him just how ridiculous his life is. It’s a serious scene meant to remind the audience, “Yes, this is unbelievably ridiculous.” But it doesn’t land. Instead of walloping the audience with the intended realization, Scorsese and Schoonmaker undermine the severity with a three minute riff between pop and son about the hairlessness of the modern woman’s nether regions. It’s fine that the film lacks any narrative structure—it’s not the first of its kind in that regard—but it’s not okay to lack narrative structure when your movie’s this long. Narrative injects a film with anticipation, as well as expectation, both of which create the illusion of propulsion—the propulsion of action and time. Wolf demonstrates neither. It simply chugs along, arbitrarily, from one incident to the next. Conflict doesn’t enter the picture till late in the game, once Jordan’s finally arrested by the FBI. But who cares? He should’ve been caught sooner.
Ironically enough, the film’s most interesting scene is a snippet of superfluity that would’ve most likely been left on the cutting room floor if a more controlled editor took a stab at Wolf. The FBI catches onto Belfort’s activities quick and sends out their eagle-scout best in Agent Denham (a ubiquitous Kyle Chandler) to feel the gonzo broker out. Denham visits Jordan on his 40-foot yacht where Jordan dares to bribe Denham with the promise of an insider tip. Denham almost records the crime. But not quite. During their tête-à-tête Jordan reveals that he knows a thing or two about Denham and his past attempt at Wall Street glory. Jordan asks Denham if he ever regrets not following through. Denham can’t help but admit, he does. Especially on those hot days on the train when his suit sticks to the side of his balls, he can’t help but think about it. Now, that’s not the aforementioned “snippet of superfluity.” Later in the movie, once Jordan’s convicted and on his way to a white-collar spa—I mean, prison—Scorsese cuts to a shot of Denham on the train taking stock of his commute—of that little, sardine-can-sized car. Denham said he couldn’t wait to lock Jordan up, that it’d be the sweetest victory of all. But is it? Did Denham really win? Is the victory all that sweet? After all, he’s still on that train with his balls stuck to his pants, while Jordan’s out on the tennis courts soaking up the sun.
Seriously, does anyone know? Who’s the real victor?