There are two things to make clear up front before getting into my thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street, and they both have to do with the controversy it's been generating since its release. First there was the story of outrage at an official Academy screening, then an open letter chastising Scorsese from the daughter of one of the main character's former associates. The movie has been maligned as a glorification of real-life protagonist Jordan Belfort's exploits as he defrauded investors and, it would seem, attempted to recreate the decadence of Rome in his own Wall Street office. Or apartment. Sometimes airplane.
These complaints are based on the argument that the many sequences of drug-fueled debauchery and turbo-wealthy excess (and boys-club misogyny) that make up a majority of the first 2/3 of the film are intended to be entertaining in that two-faced way so many modern movies are—a Scarface-esque celebration of the very amoral materialism the movie claims to condemn. Which leads me to the first thing I want to clarify: If you are watching this movie, and for any extended period you think, “Yeah, that seems pretty good—I want to be a part of that,” you are deeply troubled. Speak with someone. The second is that, despite the above complaints being based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the film's motives, The Wolf of Wall Street still can't help being—to paraphrase my favorite expression from Roger Ebert—an (often) horrible experience of (nearly) unbearable length.
The problems with The Wolf of Wall Street are complex, because it's Scorsese, so there is a lot to admire. Let's start with the good things.
Jonah Hill is Fantastic
I didn't see Moneyball, but The Wolf of Wall Street is plenty strong enough of a case for Jonah Hill to get more dramatic roles. Behind goofy horn-rimmed glasses and hilarious dental implants, Hill brings a maniacal, wide-eyed zeal to his role as Donnie Azoff, Belfort's oldest partner. We get the sense that while Belfort is capable of understanding the moral and ethical consequences of his actions and just puts his own interests higher, Azoff makes no distinction. His mission is simply to enjoy, and he hurls himself into the excesses Belfort offers with the uninhibited glee of someone who doesn't realize the party eventually has to stop.
Late in the movie, Jordan, fresh out of rehab, offers him a “non-alcoholic beer,” and Donnie struggles to understand the very meaning of the phrase. Criminality is, at best, an afterthought on his march to the next (often literal) high. He is a despicable creature, and Hill plays him perfectly.
Which brings up another point...
All the Casting is Perfect for the Movie This Should Have Been
If Jonah Hill plays Azoff as an all-too-willing loose canon, DiCaprio embodies Belfort as an over-confident man-child prone to fits when things don't go his way. That he could be punished for his crimes or suffer actual consequences for his actions seems to have never crossed his mind—he will have what he wants not out of ruthless determination, but because he has made his world to work that way.
Reviewers have already written about McConaughey's scene, where as Belfort's mentor he introduces him to the cocky, profanity-ridden, drug-fueled version of Wall Street that the younger man will base his lifestyle on, and this sequence culminates hilariously in the two of them thumping their chests like cavemen and humming an improvised tribal chant. This motif continues throughout the film, as in a later scene where DiCaprio emerges from a group of cheering employees following an inspirational speech, his face twisted into a pronounced underbite, his eyes wide and angry and dumb.
Scorsese is showing us, literally, the caveman mentality at work here, but he takes this common criticism of the alpha-male financial sector run amok one step further by casting as Belfort's top executives actors that seem pulled from a direct-to-video Anchorman sequel. He makes these men—it's difficult to tell what they do, as they are all “senior vice-presidents”—deliberately against type. Only DiCaprio fits into the tall, handsome, chiseled-jawline movie-star mold within which wealthy, successful white men are typically presented to us. The rest are stupid on their best day and are made to look like bumbling idiots the rest of the time.
Again, this is not a movie that glorifies or worships the people it's about. In more concentrated doses, the above elements would make for potent satire on the verge of farce, which is the type of movie Scorsese would have made if he were really going for broke. Unfortunately The Wolf of Wall Street takes its structural cues from Goodfellas and Casino, and that results in endless repetition of the same “jokes” to such an extent that the effect is eventually dull monotony—an unexpected achievement for a movie that on an isolated scene-by-scene basis is often so aggressively in your face.
Scorsese Insults the Audience
Another bold move Scorsese—or really, screenwriter Terence Winter—makes is to have DiCaprio address the audience directly whenever he starts explaining how Belfort's complicated financial schemes actually work, only to stop short saying something about how “oh you don't really care anyway.” In light of the recent financial crisis, this is a provocative and sharp way to criticize those who would indulge in the spectacle of Belfort's rise and fall, condemning shady Wall Street practices without making any effort to truly understand how the system works.
The final scene is brilliant in and of itself for how it implies that we as the audience enable people like Belfort by buying into these types of stories.
...But Only Sometimes Intentionally
Why, then, did I come out of the theatre with 100% conviction that the movie was so bad? Sitting here typing all of this now, I'm remembering a lot of things I loved in a subversive, genre-bucking 2-hour movie.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an agonizingly full 3 hours, and the news that Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut it down from 4 bolsters my sense that all involved in the project had only a tenuous grasp on what the audience needed in order for the film to work. The constantly in-your-face style effectively reflects the chaos and insecurity of Belfort's ego-driven lifestyle, but by refusing to take a more focused satirical standpoint than simply “look at how screwed up this is” for such a long stretch, the parts that do have something more to offer get lost in the blur, and we're left with an experience that's not entertaining or illuminating.
A movie like Goodfellas revels in its characters' success because it's necessary for the audience to share to some vicarious extent the thrill that mob life brings for Henry Hill. Casino observes mobbed-up Vegas opulence with a meticulous coldness that reflects that world's ruthless business ethics. And both movies do this while taking us on a lengthy tour of each stage of their protagonists' lives in the communities they come to dominate, because it's important that we understand how these communities function. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese wants to be bold enough to criticize modern audiences for their lack of engagement with the “how” of Belfort's crimes, but then falls back on this same procedural structure, taking us through step by almost-exactly-the-same step of the character's debaucherous rise without meaningfully commenting on any of it.
It's Still Scorsese
To be fair, Scorsese is still a master of craft and the movie is far from a technical failure. Some of these scenes are entertaining, but only when they're serving a larger satirical point. Take for instance the best scene in the movie: both men are high on quaaludes to the point of near incapacitation, unable to speak except in slurred groans, and Belfort discovers that Azoff has kept a key piece of information from him that affects an ongoing FBI investigation. DiCaprio chases Hill through his kitchen, neither of them able to manage more than a frantic, imbalanced crawl, slapping and half-yelling and drooling, and eventually has to save him from choking on a cold cut.
This scene alone is almost worth the price of admission, but the reason it works is because it's about more than simply laughing at Belfort's rampant excess. Here is a man once called in an article “The Wolf of Wall Street” (the source of the film's title, obviously), a man with such a ruthless drive for success, reduced to the capability and motor skills of an infant. It's a great scene not just because it's funny, but because it undercuts the superficial sense of power Belfort has built around himself (with a financial empire built on similarly false foundations) and shows the various ways in which drugs have enabled him to preserve the illusion in his own mind.
There is an excellent movie in here somewhere—a movie that earns the irony of its title and the boldness of its final shot without first numbing the audience with an overblown and often tone-deaf spectacle. I moved my rating above to “Indifferent” because of how much I came to admire about the film in retrospect, but that's not quite right. At the halfway point in the theatre I actually checked the time because I was so bored—that's not indifference.
Yet Scorsese has put enough on offer that if you're a fan, I may encourage you to see it even if you have the same experience I did. I'm tempted to watch it again to see if the pieces I liked fit together better on a second viewing. Just not that tempted.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Screenplay written by Terence Winter.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Margot Robbie.