The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler
There was a man sitting in front of me during The Wolf of Wall Street who was in such anguish during the entire three hours that he asked his girlfriend multiple times if they could leave “this foolishness.” She sat almost entirely in silence, whispering something along the lines of “If you wanna leave, leave,” a couple of different times.
Loud bursts of hysterical laughter also popped up throughout the theater during the movie as well, as a bunch of white collar Wall Street crooks in the ’80s and ’90s made a debauched spectacle of their privileged lives in ways that nearly transcend vulgarity. Several people walked out, though the agonized boyfriend/husband sat it out until the end.
I experienced both of these polarized responses during Martin Scorsese’s latest, though I had no intention of leaving the foolishness. It is at once a repulsive, grotesque creation and one of the funniest movies of the year. The excess is depicted in such flagrant, audacious and frantic ways that its world seems impossibly out of reach. Within minutes of the movie starting Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is taking cocaine out of a hooker’s ass, and before it ends he’ll drive a sportscar while crippled by quaaludes and throw lobsters and hundreds at the FBI.
Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, I was reminded of something the television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote about The Sopranos (Terrence Winter, a frequent writer of that series, penned this fantastic screenplay from Belfort’s memoir). She discusses creator David Chase’s lashing out at people who watched (and loved) the show for the wrong reasons:
At times, Chase’s frustration seemed to beat behind the scenes: You like strippers, think misogyny is funny? How about watching a goomar beaten to death? That fun, too?
This is exactly the kind of mentality that seems to seethe through the very fabric of The Wolf of Wall Street: You like drugs, think misogyny is funny? How about watching a man snort coke, punch his wife in the gut and run off with his young daughter before crashing the car? Take into account how many shots there are of Jordan Belfort laughing maniacally at his power, or furious at the prospect of something not going his way. Too many to count during a single viewing.
Scorsese isn’t standing on a pulpit for three hours lecturing about how evil and empty Wall Street is either, though. This is common sense. Instead, he has created an epic reverie of such depravity that one can do little else but laugh and cringe. In Belfort’s sales office alone, Scorsese portrays an anarchic space of endlessly screaming executives, where a marching band plays in their underwear, people get blown in the elevator and Jonah Hill eats a nerdy broker’s goldfish then fires him. (Side note: give Jonah Hill a damn Oscar or something).
His technique is so confident and precise here that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without any of its immaculately staged scenes and set pieces, except maybe a perilous European yacht trip during bad weather. The movie plays out like a demented American tone poem, similar to Spring Breakers but told in much different cinematic verse.
Narratively, this has much in common with Goodfellas, with a young man rising to prominence on the heels of a manic vision of the American Dream, then succumbing to the excesses of it, ratting out his friends and living his life as a mockery of his former self. Belfort, as brilliantly embodied by DiCaprio, is a seething ball of rage produced by sexual frustration. He can have anything he wants, and often does, but when confronted with the intimacy of a woman, he cums in 11 seconds. In another scene, a dominatrix named Venice straddles him and pours candle wax on his back. Later, his second wife (Margot Robbie, also great) throws water on him because he was moaning about Venice in his sleep.
What Scorsese has created here is a decidedly uncomfortable and troubling movie, one that rejects the notion of being a “cultural snapshot” but nevertheless is one. There is something much more elemental at work here, something that Scorsese touched on in exploring the career of John Ford, more specifically The Searchers.
In his Hollywood Reporter review of a recent book on the history of that 1956 Western, he writes:
In truly great films — the ones that people need to make, the ones that start speaking through them, the ones that keep moving into territory that is more and more unfathomable and uncomfortable — nothing’s ever simple or neatly resolved. You’re left with a mystery.
Wolf of Wall Street is such a movie; one that he needed to make or one that is speaking through him, obviously not one with the historical or cultural significance of The Searchers or even other entries in Scorsese’s own filmography.
Based on initial critical response, it already seems like it will be one of the more misunderstood entries in his catalog. For me, he has always been a director whose mainstream success with gangster films (Goodfellas,The Departed, Mean Streets, Casino), while often well deserved, often overshadows the rest of his brilliant career (The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ, Hugo).
Perhaps his greatest film, Taxi Driver, is (in part) a portrait of post-Vietnam madness that shows a veteran disgusted by the excesses of New York City and whose masculine savior complex (involving a teenage prostitute) the movie decidedly rejects. Scorsese portrays that excess in The Wolf of Wall Street, building a grand formal design around Belfort’s lifestyle that was so crucial in portraying Travis Bickle’s insanity. In both cases, no matter how disturbing and excessive, it’s impossible to look away.