The Wolf of Wall Street is a good movie; it’s probably even a great one. Yet, there is something about this picture that makes the fierce cocaine-fueled frenzy surrounding it seem well earned…if misplaced. This movie is exactly what it needs to be, and that is why so many are struggling to keep it at anything other than arm’s length.
Decadent, excessive, and lascivious, The Wolf of Wall Street has whipped up just as many fans as it has moral majority naysayers, ready to tut-tut the 71-year-old Martin Scorsese for making such a dirty movie. And while the legendary auteur is no stranger to disapproving criticism—the religious outrage over The Last Temptation of Christ buried that 1988 film—it is doubtful that even he could have expected a screenwriting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to purportedly come up to him after a screening at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater and shout, “Shame on you! Disgusting!” Even Paramount Pictures could only downplay the incident by stating that initial accounts that this was screamed at the Raging Bull filmmaker were exaggerated—it wasn’t technically a scream.
The media narrative of condemnation forming around this movie has become so intense that star Leonardo DiCaprio had to celebrate the New Year by doing some damage control when he sat down with Deadline to explain, “Not everyone is going to get it.” And frankly, I agree with DiCaprio’s overall summation about the movie being a darkly comic (and horrifying) attempt to gain insight into why these people live the way that they do. It is completely understandable that a victim of Jordan Belfort’s ponderous narcissism, as well as her own father, would take justifiable offense at this kind of peak behind the curtain of the unending golden roar in the land of bulls and bears. However, just as Scorsese and author/co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi attempted to make the gangster movie from the “soldier in Napoleon’s army” point of view with Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street by its very pure, undiluted nature must view these repellently poor excuses for human beings on their own terms. To understand how any group of monsters in men’s clothing—who not-so-hilariously hold the fate of the global economy in their Quaalude-shaking hands in this most recent example—can exist in our world, Scorsese has long found it best to not pass moral judgment with his camera or screenplay. He’ll let the characters hang themselves with their own silk satin ropes.
This unapologetically brazen, go-big-or-go-home approach to filmmaking is increasingly rare in a studio system dominated by sequels and superheroes, leading many critics and movie buffs to enthusiastically embrace this picture as the unofficial successor to Goodfellas and Casino, two movies that also were once accused of “glorifying” mob violence by those who failed to realize that there was a reason every character ended up dead, in prison, or in witness protection by the end of those flicks. Painted on epic, decade-spanning canvases that were never defined by any rule of moviemaking, that mafia duet served as a glaring inspiration for what The Wolf of Wall Street hoped to do about the godfathers of the stock market; killers of industry in even nicer suits. Hence the unsurprising raves, be it from Forbes or The Stranger, that this is Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas.
But this ain’t no Goodfellas.
In many ways, Goodfellas served as a return for Scorsese to the demons he first exhumed in Mean Streets (1973). With that earlier classic picture, Scorsese famously posited that his nihilistic view of New York was all he had to say about the wiseguys and goombahs he witnessed going down the dark path while growing up in Little Italy during the mid-20th century. When he finally returned to the “genre” in 1990, it was more from the perspective of a filmmaker who wanted to chronicle why that life would be so enticing, as well as unpack the self-rationalizations that allowed its travelers to be blindsided by its ever abrupt, bloody end.
To tell this story, Goodfellas is comprised of unbridled cinematic confidence that threw out the NYU rulebook that the director and editor Thelma Schoomaker practically wrote. Eye-lines could be broken, continuity errors and jarring jump cuts were not only acceptable, they were mandated. With deceptive ease, the movie could drift from the voice over narration of protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) to wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) without explanation or warning, sometimes even in the same scene. Goodfellas just wasn’t scored to entirely contemporary pop songs of each era a scene was set in; it was designed from the page up to use music as an oblique commentary on the characters. Scorsese would infamously scribble down songs he’d have in mind on the script’s margins, and even go so far as to photograph non-dialogue scenes to musical playback. This approach led to cinematic moments so perfect that whenever The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” is played on the radio, it is impossible not to think of the seamless steadicam shot of Henry and Karen walking into the Copacabana; nor can the Derek and the Dominos’ piano exit to “Layla” be sampled without shivers of frozen wiseguy corpses encroaching the mind.
Goodfellas, and to a lesser extent Casino, were films meant to explain why this kind of evil, depravity, and revulsion could persist within our culture. Yet nonetheless, Scorsese would not deny affection for some of these characters. Joe Pesci may have won the Oscar for playing a complete sociopath like Tommy in Goodfellas, but the movie lived and died by how seduced viewers were into Henry Hill’s perspective. As Henry was the one who cut a deal with the FBI, his version of events will always be dubious. But as a work of art separate from reality, the 1990 movie can trick us into rooting and empathizing with a violent, reprehensible, heroin-dealing killer. But unlike most gangster movies, it is not meant to glamorize the lifestyle. Rather, it convinces the audience that they too “always have wanted to be a gangster," and then methodically takes that away from them until they are left with a coked-up Henry receiving a death sentence from childhood friend Jimmy (Robert De Niro) who has “a job” for him down in Florida…coincidentally around the same time that Henry got pinched by the feds.
Marty grew up with proverbial Jimmys, Tommys, and Henrys in his neighborhood and around his orbit. He has no such compassion for Wall Street confidence men. DiCaprio picked up the rights for the film in 2007 when he outbid Brad Pitt, but the post-2008 crash’s disgust is all over the actors’ and filmmakers’ approach to the material. The disdain is so dripping from every frame that it should not have taken DiCaprio’s candid Deadline interview for him to spell out, “None of the people that made this movie likes these people, at all.” The specter of 2008 hovers above The Wolf of Wall Street like an armada of golden parachutes that escaped another flailing Gulfstream V.
That is not to say the movie is preachy. It does not pass judgment on these people in any overt way. Indeed, the comical absurdity this movie uses to view a group of folks who throw wild orgies in the office on the dime of the plumbers and working class electricians they just bankrupted is the only way to even stomach watching such wanton greed. If Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) played out like a capitalistic opera in which Gordon Gekko was a Milton-esque Devil ready to claim Bud Fox’s soul, then The Wolf of Wall Street is a wise counterbalance that enters a stage that’s long forgotten what morality even is, much less how to strip it from one of its ravenous disciples. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort isn’t the tragedy of a man who lost his soul; he’s a portrait of a person who never had one to begin with.
Beyond the danger of this lifestyle, the movie is obsessed with the endless excess within it. Everything is likewise intentionally overdone about Wolf of Wall Street, including its nearly 3-hour running time and gratuitous use of nudity and sex. This blunt style also leads to moments of clarity and stunning, giggling brilliance, such as the already infamous Quaalude vignette that features Jordan’s failed attempt to drive home while under the heavy influence of his precious “Lemons.” In a movie where Jonah Hill placing a seemingly live goldfish in his mouth is one of the more restrained sequences, this is obviously about making a point.
And that point is that they’re vile. So vile that the only things they seem to care about are money, sex, money, drugs, and more money: Everything else is negotiable. This sort of vapidity is so egregious for most people—whether it is because they hate riding the proverbial subway or not—that it is hard to ever once cheer for Jordan Belfort or sympathize with any of his many, many, many, many failings as a father, husband, employer, American or worthwhile human being. Scorsese and DiCaprio clearly have no pity for a man who’s staggering selfishness can only be comprehended in the confines of “comedy.” It appears the filmmakers are also turned off by these creeps. And if they can’t find the humanity, how can viewers?
This is likely what will keep The Wolf of Wall Street from becoming one of the all-time greats like the always breathlessly praised Goodfellas. That gangster drama had no illusions about who these men were, but in the hands of a filmmaker who had more than a passing knowledge of their sort, they could be witnessed as caring husbands, family men or at least friends. And when they inevitably failed in every single one of those aforementioned categories by credit’s (or bullet’s) end, it hurt. This worked because we could be seduced into seeing things Henry Hill’s way, if only for the first 45 minutes or so. Audiences never fall for Jordan Belfort’s distortions, nor do the filmmakers. The neutrality with which Wolf approaches its authenticity gives us a glimpse of that mindset, but achieves it without beaconing or lulling us into its forbidden garden. When most viewers can admit that 3 hours is too much time to spend with this kind of cretin, could we ever really root for them? In Scorsese’s hands, these fellows are far more irredeemable than any mobster.
Ironically, it may be another December release that was clearly influenced by Goodfellas that captured the one missing aspect from Wolf. In American Hustle, David O. Russell meshes his style with many of the flourishes that the fabled gangster picture enjoyed, including narrating protagonists whose ability to break the fourth wall endear us to them all the more. Likely due to completely fictionalizing the scandalous story of Abscam, lead characters Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are a pair of affable crooks. Sure, they rip off dozens of desperate people for thousands of dollars at a time, but they do so with a smile-and-a-wink for each other, and even some easy-to-appreciate guilt when it comes to the honorable mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The amount of sympathy imbued in these characters is so rich that their relatively conscious-free ending is a little too neat a bow for a movie that involved trying to scam the mob. Regardless, audiences still could respect these otherwise selfish criminals.
When it comes to the real wolves of Wall Street, even Marty “Goodfellas” Scorsese can’t get behind that. Apparently, no one can.
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