As many of our readers may know, in recent months I have found myself in somewhat of a silver-screen dilemma. It seems that ages have passed since I left a movie theater feeling truly elated and surprised by what I saw, chattering with my fellow patrons about incredible plot detail and kick-ass acting chops.
More often than not, I find myself solemnly waltzing to back to my car wondering how Hollywood managed to squeeze another ten dollars from my pocket. For the special privilege of watching Natalie Portman play a surprisingly lonely nuclear physicist who falls in love with a God, no less. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t head to the cinema to enjoy a Marvel popcorn flick with expectations of an Oscar worthy story and tear-jerking emotion, and I love a campy movie as much as anyone.
But now, even the movies that seem like fool-proof masterpieces are starting to fall flat on their asses. This brings me to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. A film that has pulled off the impossible in the worst possible way, employing an all-star cast and legendary director to usher me out the door before the final credits even rolled. Scorsese’s latest effort gives us an epic three hour journey through the life and times of womanizing stock-swindler Jordan Belfort, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie boasts an impressive (if somewhat top-heavy) cast for its legendary director to command, along with a screenplay by the usually fantastic Terence Winter (The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire). Perfect pieces to the perfect puzzle right? All I needed to do was sit down and let the mastery wash over me. Not quite.
I waited on the edge of my seat as minute after minute of the film lapped painstakingly across the screen, each one more contrived and farcical than the last. Once again, Scorsese and his cast manage to pull off the impossible. They made a three-hour film of non-stop fucks, drugs, debauchery, and absurdity that is at the core…tiresome and pointless.
I am still struggling to make sense of the mess that unfolded before me. Scorsese’s greatest pictures have always succeeded because they are very emotive, they give us a tangible connection to the characters onscreen. Henry Hill, Travis Bickle, Sam Rothstein, these are the characters that defined generations of acting excellence. People walked into these movies not knowing what to expect, and getting way more than they bargained for. The Wolf is a complete reversal from that basic experience, promising us the world and delivering almost nothing.
As the plot meanders between drug binges, arbitrary misogyny, and occasionally sincere comedy, we are given no reason to care about anything that is happening. Who lives? Who dies? Who goes to jail in the end? Zero fucks given. And maybe that was the point after all. I can understand wanting to emphasize the extremist hedonism that comes along with financial depravity, but that is not what Scorsese gives us. At least not in the way of anything new or insightful. Every moment of human drama that unfolds on the screen is the same as it presumably was in Belfort’s actual experience, euphorically drug-addled and profoundly stupid. Every time Dicaprio nears the vicinity of an epiphany, a lesson, something to cling to that might save the viewer from falling into a coma along with his character, the film takes another sharp turn into mindless revelry. More ‘ludes, more midgets, more disgusting hookers, and on and on ad nauseum.
Even as we watch Belfort’s family begin to crumble and the story turn fatalistically dark, nothing really changes. The power hungry millionaire simply ditches his wife and child (their names don’t really matter) and moves on to better pussy, more drugs and more money. Tedious is too generous of a word to describe the pace of the film. Watching the screen made me really feel like the aging Marty Scorsese himself was strung out on Lemmons and blow during the entire process of filmmaking.
The real problem with the Wolf rears its head when you start to think about the possibilities, what might have been. Financial fraud and stock swindling is perhaps the greatest economic issue of our generation, the issue is a bottomless pit of dramatic and creative potential. The real-life drama is there for the taking. After watching a trailer or over-hyped advertisement about the film, you would have expected an experience akin to Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, but you certainly don’t get it. I’m sure the New York Times gave it a great review (not that they had a choice) but I feel like I was swindled, just like all those poor saps on the phone who threw money Jordan Belfort so he could throw it at federal agents from his 200 foot yacht. The film spends five minutes showing us the rigors of trying to crawl to your Lamborghini after overdosing on quaaludes, and that is really all you really need to know. How do you make a movie that is (presumably?) about a hugely important real-life problem without even addressing a single piece of the puzzle.
In the end it really is a perfect metaphor for the financial industry, and maybe that was the point. Scorsese, like Madoff before him, is clearly content to just take your money and run. Jonah Hill, you’ve come a long way and the teeth were funny, but just no. Even with all the critical acclaim and box office success, this movie fails at the core. It is self-indulgent, and never rises above it’s own profoundness.