January: an excellent time to look back on The Past and other late releases of 2013 and look forward to the new year’s films, starting with Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake. There is much to be said for that impressively controlled French thriller, not least that it brings a warm breath of summer into the winter months. Before I get to Guiraudie’s film, though, let’s talk about the problem picture of December 2013, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Because Scorsese has a mind full of movies, it’s possible to guess what he was thinking about at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street: the last shot in King Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd. Vidor, you may recall, finishes his portrait of a terrifyingly, heartbreakingly ordinary family by showing a face-on image of them in a theater, laughing at a vaudeville performance. Then Vidor pulls back the camera to reveal dozens, hundreds, seemingly thousands of their fellow theatergoers responding identically to the show. He leaves you staring vertiginously into a mirror image of the audience in which you sit, where you see yourself reduced to a dot. In a similar spirit, The Wolf of Wall Street also ends at a performance: a lecture that will supposedly reveal get-rich-quick techniques, given by Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the brazenly amoral financial huckster who in real life is a convicted felon and in the movie is the main subject and narrator. As the scene concludes, Scorsese runs his camera over the rows and rows of Belfort’s dull-eyed, blank-faced spectators, and at last you see the people who have been missing from the story for the preceding three hours: the suckers who gave their money to this crook. Look into the mirror, says Scorsese. They’re you.
With this closing gesture, Scorsese finally, if tacitly, passes judgment on Belfort, who until this point has been allowed to run as wild as any picaro. At the same time, though, Scorsese implies a retrospective justification of Belfort’s career, hinting that a man of such energy and talent could scarcely have restrained himself from fleecing these sheep. What strikes me about this finale is that it’s the only moment of ambiguity to be found in The Wolf of Wall Street, and the only instance in which Scorsese alludes to a monument of film history. For the rest of the picture, it seems to me that he’s thinking about the collected works of the Three Stooges.
It would be a dangerously brilliant insight, if in fact that’s what Scorsese has done, to imagine the Stooges as a counterpart to Jordan Belfort’s business enterprise: on the one hand, a highly profitable but frantically churning production unit that spat out two-reelers from Hollywood’s Poverty Row without benefit of recognized authorship or taste; on the other, a lucrative, crass and deeply fraudulent penny-stock operation that emerged from the Poverty Row of Long Island boiler rooms without benefit of any credential other than a classy-sounding name, Stratton Oakmont. The faint simulacrum of Wall Street professionalism that Belfort put up at his headquarters, and the opulence of the toys (human, mechanical and pharmaceutical) that he bought with his loot, could never disguise the nature of Stratton Oakmont’s business, which was valueless, in all senses of the word, even by the standards of the financial services industry. In much the same way, the dazzling high gloss of Scorsese’s production, with its luxury of partying crowds and penthouse settings, does not cover up the essential Stoogeness of the movie’s proceedings.
I don’t think Scorsese wants to cover it up. DiCaprio, with bottle-brown hair sculpted just so and free-floating aggression telegraphed by his every gesture, clearly functions as the story’s fast-talking, overbearing, plan-spinning Moe. (To quote the words of the immortal Homer, “Moe is their leader.” The Simpsons, #9F01.) Jonah Hill, with horn-rimmed eyeglasses and an abundance of wavy hair, is the Larry equivalent, alternately currying favor and dithering into hysterics as Belfort’s partner Donnie Azoff (an invented name). In place of Curly, we have the muscular, bullet-headed Jon Bernthal as Brad, a drug dealer and bagman who provokes slapstick and police activity. Margot Robbie provides the obligatory woo-woo-woo as Belfort’s second wife—really, that’s the extent of her job—and Jean Dujardin fulfills the duties of the upper-crust foil.
Conceptually, the scheme is a stroke of genius, made all the more daring by Scorsese’s willingness to abandon all claims to respectability to carry it through. Unfortunately, though, Scorsese did not abandon the epic scale of his ambitions along with his auteurism. The result might have been predictable to anyone who has tried to sit through more than three Stooges shorts in a row. The characteristic traits build up, intolerably: the grinding pace, the deadening repetition, the pointless wordiness (Terence Winter’s screenplay never shuts up), the self-congratulatory nyuk-nyuks. I suppose the wretchedness of the excess is to Scorsese’s credit—though, really, by the time Jonah Hill effectively coughed a half-chewed hot dog into my face, I felt I’d laughed enough.
Socially conscious moviegoers who believe that artists should act as public scolds might not enjoy this slog themselves but will perhaps recommend it for others, on the grounds that somebody out there needs to see an exposé. Avant-gardish types might instead justify the experience by invoking the Bukowski fallacy—the belief that the most authentic artistic response to a nauseating reality is to vomit. Subscribing to neither view, and reluctant to think that Scorsese has gone so wrong, I have tried to talk myself into the enthusiasm that some of my trusted friends feel for The Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe, on the day I saw it, my responses were simply off. I have to admit, though, that all through the screening I kept muttering the same thing about this movie that I say about our current reign of financial despots: “I can’t wait for it to be over.”
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