THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Review: Too Much of a Good Thing
Intent is easy, even if successfully executing that intent isn’t. Intent is typically connected to the genre of the film. Comedies intend to make you laugh, horrors intend to scare you, and so on. Even adult films have the intent to arouse you.
But responsibility? I don’t know that any film has a responsibility for anything other than to give the audience its money’s worth. Don’t average moviegoers approach most films this way anyway? Don’t average moviegoers – and even some critics/bloggers – have a thumbnail system of measurement that says whether a film is worth a trip to the theater vs. a rental vs. skipping it entirely? As much as purists decry the commerce side of moviemaking, everyone from average moviegoers to film snobs will say or think something like, “That movie isn’t worth my time,” which is a thing of value akin to money. If I invest my time (no matter the length) and I invest my money (no matter the amount) then Hollywood should give me something of equal or greater value in return. That’s where the responsibility ends.
I pose all of this because social media has been at DefCon 1 since reactions to Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street have made the rounds, and the film has created debate – sometimes intelligent, sometimes disrespectful, always fierce – that has gone far beyond the usual impassioned “loved it/hated it” division associated with recent releases like this past summer’s blockbuster Man of Steel or last year’s Oscar hopeful Les Miserables. But first the film.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is new to the stock trading game when he takes his first Wall Street job. He is eager to please, but more importantly he is eager to learn, and in the few months he works for a major brokerage firm, he learns much from Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey): lessons in everything from blue chips and pink sheets to cocaine and hookers. But six months into that career, the crash of 1987 occurs and Belfort finds himself unemployed. With the support of his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), Belfort takes a job selling penny stocks out of a strip mall storefront.
Belfort turns out to be a master salesman, and soon he is leveraging the volume of penny stock purchases and their high commission rates into a $70,000-a-month career. But he wants more. He starts his own firm (Stratton Oakmont), teaches friends how to sell, and in no time moves from five figures per month to nearly seven figures per week. But his climb to that pinnacle is done by stepping on the backs and throats of the investors he defrauded – not just big-time players, but average folks, too – and eventually his rise gets the attention of both the SEC and the FBI. The former is easily placated but the latter isn’t, and when Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) closes in, Belfort’s arrogance and recklessness become his undoing.
Something that I have seen no debate about are the performances in the film; almost everyone – from early-in McConaughey to late-in Jean Dujardin (as Swiss banker Jean Jacques Saurel) is excellent. (The weakest of the bunch is Jon Favreau as Belfort’s securities attorney; he is painfully out of his thespian league. The man I wish had more screen time is Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father; after 50+ years in the business, Reiner’s comic timing is still as sharp as ever.) But it’s the film’s Big Three that really make it work.
Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s second wife Naomi. Ever the object of Belfort’s carnal desires, Robbie plays to the physical sexiness of her character, maximizing her sultry eyes and dangerous hips, but she is not just the prettiest face in Belfort’s daily crowd pretty faces. She is strong and stands up to Belfort when she should, even using his weakness for her flesh to her advantage. Jonah Hill is marvelous as Belfort’s #2 man, Donnie Azoff. Working through an almost-laughable set of dentures, Hill’s Azoff can hang with Belfort in the ribaldry department, yet he is (and never will be) the man Jordan is. He is the eternal sidekick and he knows his place.
And of course there is DiCaprio, who dominates the screen when he’s on it, and he’s on it for a better part of the three-hour run time. It’s a performance that is in the conversation of his best ever, channeling equal parts Michael Douglas‘ Gordon Gekko, Tom Hanks‘ Forrest Gump, and John Belushi‘s Bluto. Speaking of Douglas-as-Gekko (from 1987’s Wall Street), he has been toppled by DiCaprio-as-Belfort, who is now the face of the Wall Street trader.
Beyond the stellar performances, the film itself is … good. Scorsese masterfully captures the lifestyle that Belfort leads and the addiction the man has. It’s an addiction that starts with money and leads to drugs and sex, and it ultimately becomes a combination of all of those things and more: an addiction to what his power, influence, and wealth allow him to enjoy. In fact, he does so many drugs and spends his money on the craziest things (a marching band leading a parade of hookers, for example), the story itself must be true because it is far too bizarre to be believable fiction.
And this is my core issue with the film: the story, such as it is. A lot has been made of the film’s three-hour running time and I agree that it is probably about an hour too long. But it isn’t just the run time of the film; it’s what you get in that time. The 2013 French film Blue is the Warmest Color, which also runs three hours, is loaded with story and beautifully tells it. The Wolf of Wall Street has a story in there somewhere; in fact, I would say (anecdotally) that Belfort’s rise and fall are probably given about equal story time. It’s the overloaded middle, with its endless series of over-the-top, drug-fueled events that only serve reinforce what we already learned the first several times we saw such things – drugs / sex / money / crazy / drugs / sex / money / crazy / drugs / sex / money / crazy.
None of these things offended me. (There are reports that the sex is near-pornographic, and I would disagree. It is certainly excessive in the context of a mainstream Hollywood film, but with the exception of one or two specific incidents, it’s no different than what you might happen across on Cinemax any given night.) I simply reached a point when I said, “Okay, I get it already.” And if the rebuttal to that is some film school retort that the excess of the film is representative of the excess of Belfort’s life, then I say, “Why stop at three hours? If more equals more, why not endlessly pursue more? What is the acceptable length of time to not only make the literal point, but to get that symbolic point across too? Three hours? Six? Thirty-six?”
What makes all of it so maddening is that each scene is very good on its own. Then again, so is each glass of Johnnie Walker Blue scotch. But if I don’t stop drinking it at some point, I will get nowhere and it will have a negative effect on me. The same happens with this film: it struggles to make progress and its excess is its own detriment.
This, I think, is what is helping fuel the controversy: that Scorsese’s film glamorizes and glorifies Belfort’s lifestyle without taking him to task on the lives he ruined – through illegal means – on his way to the top, and/or without looking at the real devastation left in the wake of Belfort’s actions. I understand the sentiment given the current economic climate in the United States (bailouts and Occupy and whatnot), and I’ll always be curious about how this film might have been received had it been made in more prosperous economic times. I also understand how the endless scenes of Belfort’s lifestyle give the look of glorification; the string of so many of them have a real rub-your-nose-in-it feel.
But Scorsese’s job is to tell the story he wants to tell, period. He has no responsibility to offer equal time to Belfort’s victims the same way he has no responsibility to tell the story of Belfort’s childhood. Scorsese made artistic choices about the timeframe he wanted to cover and the events within that timeframe he wanted to highlight. Had the story been fictional, this conversation wouldn’t be happening; the fact that it’s based on reality isn’t reason to begin that conversation.
The only thing that leaves me scratching my head is Scorsese’s decision to cast the real Belfort in a bit part near the end of the film; it almost feels like some kind of reward. Perhaps it was done as part of the rights acquisition, or perhaps (as some have speculated) it was an effort by Scorsese to show the genuine article next to the guy who was making him look like a man whose life spiraled out of control and ultimately crashed. I’m not sure I buy that. It’s also possible that the movie folks thought it would be cool to have the real deal hanging around the set. I would have a problem with that because that feels like less than an artistic decision and more like a reward for bad behavior. I don’t know. I probably never will.
With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese and DiCaprio swing for the fences … and swing … and swing … and swing … and swing so many more times that their arms ought to be tired. Instead, our senses are the things fatigued.