Scorsese Satyricon: The Wolf of Wall Street

Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Does the life of a film critic strike you as cushy, even glamorous? Abate thine envy, prithee. Granted, there are far worse ways to make a buck than sitting in a movie theatre for a couple of hours each week. But consider this: When you decide, half an hour into a flick that turns out to be awful, that you can’t take any more of it, you’re perfectly free to get up and leave. Pity the poor reviewer, who must stick it out to the bitter end or not get paid.

Less than ten minutes into Martin Scorsese’s latest opus, The Wolf of Wall Street, I was more than ready to leave. But there were 169 minutes left to go, and they were every bit as excruciating as the opening sequence promised. Never in all my moviegoing days have I squirmed in my theatre seat as much, or looked at my watch so many times. I urge you, for your own good, to avoid subjecting yourself to this same ordeal.

You’ve probably heard by now that one of The Wolf of Wall Street’s dubious distinctions is the fact that it holds the world record for number of uses (500+) of the F-word in a single feature film. That’s not why I hated it, though it’s symptomatic in a small way of what went wrong with the not-unsound concept of basing a film on the biography of a real-life penny-stock huckster who got fabulously wealthy and then got busted. Profanity in movies doesn’t bother me; glorification of greed, stupidity and the objectification of women does. So does reliance on unending (indeed, unpausing) manic, loud, aggressive dialogue to try to ramp up a movie’s dramatic momentum. The Wolf of Wall Street is loud, loud, loud, and populated almost exclusively by hyped-up, utterly amoral characters in whose company you instantly don’t want to spend another minute.

And when I say “amoral,” I’m not just talking about the nonstop drugs-and-hookers parties in which the story’s crooked stockbrokers seem to spend much more of their time than actually working – although those scenes go well beyond what’s necessary to convey the concept of “wretched excess.” You don’t have to be a Puritan to hate The Wolf of Wall Street. “Amoral” means that sales-pitch genius Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), his crew of gung-ho former nerds from Long Island and the other Wall Streeters depicted herein take pride in their utter lack of concern for the middle- and working-class investors whose retirement funds they’re pirating. While not always technically violating the law, they’re gangsters plain and simple. And nowhere in the movie do we get to meet any of their victims or witness the harm that those wacky maverick stockbrokers have done to them; the director doesn’t trouble himself with such mundane ethical matters.

Martin Scorsese demonstrably loves gangsters, of course, more than most of us, and never seems to tire of going back to that same gory well for story inspiration. He has made a number of truly great movies in the past – most recently the luminous Hugo – so it’s becoming rather sad after all these years that he can’t let go of the flimsy notion that violent and corrupt people are the only sort of characters interesting enough to hang a good story on. The Wolf of Wall Street is an especially repellent display of directorial self-indulgence, and it doesn’t even hold up well as filmcraft.

The editing in particular is jarring, relying heavily on a technique of rapidly switching back and forth between two cameras, one trained on the front of a character (usually Belfort) and the other on his back, in a way that repeatedly seems to miss a beat. The sense of discontinuity that this engenders cannot be excused due to inexperience or low budget; the NYU-trained Scorsese must be trying to make a vague aesthetic point here, but it tends to exacerbate the movie’s general payload of high-decibel, free-floating hostility.

What was Scorsese thinking? Or was he thinking at all? Did he – like some of his characters – just want to see how much he could get away with, like a teenage boy who tests adults’ boundaries by being deliberately outrageous at every opportunity? That sort of behavior quickly wears thin, even in a character like Belfort who commands a formidable gift of gab and enough glib charm to persuade the unwary that the sun rises in the west. Everything in this movie is exaggerated, seemingly for exaggeration’s sake. Though some fine actors are employed, the performances are overblown to a scale more suited to the performance of an opera in some gigantic arena where the bleacher seats are a quarter-mile away from the stage than they are to a moviehouse screen.

The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that the director must have taken to rewatching the films of Federico Fellini of late, and comparing his own cinematic legacy to that of the late Italian master. Perhaps The Wolf of Wall Street, in which Belfort’s company’s offices are routinely visited by the likes of nude marching bands and roller-skating chimpanzees, is Scorsese’s answer to that supremely bizarre, over-the-top masterpiece Fellini Satyricon. There’s something to be said for using the corruption and decadence of Rome under the Nero regime as a metaphor for the excesses of Wall Street and the banking industry in recent decades; but if that was Scorsese’s intent, he got nowhere near the target. Fellini’s movie is hallucinatory art. Scorsese’s is just a lot of noise, both visual and auditory, romanticizing horrible people.

And what was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thinking, nominating The Wolf of Wall Street for a Best Picture Oscar? Someone there must have confused it with another, vastly superior film about scam artists currently in theatres. Do yourself a favor: Just avoid this movie. Otherwise you’ll end up like me, lamenting those ill-spent three hours of my life that I will never get back.

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  1. I agree with every word. I spent 3 hours of my life with ugly people, ugly behaviour and ugly language. I didn’t laugh or even smile once (black comedy or not). I stayed till the end because I thought there would have to be some reflection, some point to this over-long portrayal of greedy, self indulgent, immature, penis driven behaviour. But no. There was no evidence of that. It seems it was simply Martin Scorcese getting his own rocks off!

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