The Wolf of Wall Street: Roundtable Review

{Martin Scorsese’s 23rd narrative filmThe Wolf of Wall Street, has provoked a flood of praise and a simultaneous maelstrom of criticism since its December 25, 2013 release. Here, Thought Pollution’s Liam Green, Pete Rizzo, Charlie Felder and newcomer Lauren Barbato discuss seven key questions related to the movie’s stature, controversy and ultimate position on the high-powered moral bankruptcy of the financial world it depicts.}

On the film’s ranking – is it all-time great Scorsese, great late-period Scorsese, good late Scorsese or none of the above?

Liam: For me it’s all-time great – behind the “Holy Quartet” of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, but not by much. I’d slot it into the second tier of Scorsese all-time greatness alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence and The Departed. It covers American amorality and evil, the inability of inherently insecure “alpha” men to properly relate to women and their tendency to abuse them, the realities of human violence and wrongdoing and our terrible attraction/repulsion to what Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York called “the spectacle of fearsome acts,” in all forms. All those themes are classic Scorsese, brilliantly and brutally depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street, and the whirlwind kineticism of the filmmaking is inherently his as well.

Pete: One thing that’s really been apparent to me since watching WoWS is Scorsese’s penchant for blending entertainment and art. I want to address this gap, and how crossing it is why Scorsese is such a great director, and why someone like Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick will never reach his level of popularity.

GoodFellas, for all the great acting, scripting, etc., is simply an endlessly watchable movie. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull – not so much. They’re great movies, but they’re not burning up AMC. Wolf is in GoodFellas territory. It will be on TV again and again, because it doesn’t hit the nail on the head for you. Scorsese hands the hammer and nail to you, and draws his mark on the wall. Where you fall on this spectrum will determine how you see Wolf – my preference is for the populist middle.

Lauren: Is WoWS really for the masses, though? While it certainly has shades of GoodFellas, it’s not up to that “watchability” level – nor do I think it wants to be. Part of the film’s controversy stems from its packaging – that glossy, Kanye West-soundtracked, American Typewriter-trimmed trailer made it seem accessible in a way I’ve never seen a Scorsese film portrayed. Sure, Marty makes every film of his for everyone, because he loves cinema so much and wants to share it with every person he meets in the elevator at his doctor’s office, but they’re not really “for everyone.” I think The Departed, an enjoyable, relatively inoffensive crime story, was his “populist” film. Or Hugo, I guess.

GoodFellas just has a life to it that WoWS doesn’t. The latter has life, but not in the same way. Perhaps it’s all a matter of taste, but I can watch Ray Liotta and the guys cook pasta and gravy in prison over and over. It’s those breaks where real life trickles in – like where his mother interrupts their body-disposal mission to force them to eat – that lift the scenes as much as they ground them. Wolf isn’t exactly on that level.

In the end, I think it’s hard to beat the Holy Quartet. I also have a special place in my heart for After Hours. Despite my Slate-sounding contrarianism (I know, I know), I do think WoWS is a great late-period Scorsese film. But if anyone needs me, I’m hanging out in the pool hall with Johnny Boy (from Mean Streets).

Charlie: I’m with Pete on this one. Walking out of the theater the first time, three thoughts found their way from my shellshocked brain to my vocal chords and past my lips: Leo should take home the Oscar, Marty still has it and WoWS is instantly classic, capable of sending my future Saturday afternoons to a screeching halt when I come across it on TV.

Only a few films reach that level for me, where my evening or afternoon is devoured by the unwritten rule of Thou Shalt Not Change the Channel, including The Godfather, L.A. Confidential, The Man Who Would Be King, most Tarantino or Coens films, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas and Casino. I’m certain that that WoWS belongs on that plane. I’ll drop future plans for this movie. A three-hour film that feels like two? It’s absolutely at the GoodFellas watchability level.

So…Leo. LEO LEO LEO. Finally gave me what I’d been waiting for all these years. People liked him in The Departed – I thought he was crap. The Aviator, The Beach, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, Blood Diamond? I could live my whole life without seeing those movies. Haven’t felt strongly one way or another about Leo for years. His recent performance in Gatsby was fantastic, but buried under Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic self-indulgence. I loved him in Catch Me if You Can, which was maybe the last time Leo’s vision perfectly aligned with a director – over 10 years ago. From open to close, WoWS is DiCaprio’s film. You can’t look away, and wouldn’t dare. And I’ve never seen an actor move his body like that. You want the dark heart of Wall Street excess and nihilism? Leo’s Jordan Belfort takes your money without remorse because he’s an addict who can spend it better than you. Leo drives maniacally (literally, under extreme influence) to the darkest places, with all the abandon of a man with no lessons to learn because MONEY.

Finally, let’s talk Marty. In total control from start to finish, he never lets you feel the running time. I haven’t seen a Scorsese film so hilarious since After Hours – arguably Wolf’s estranged/inverted twin. But while his characters inhale mountains of powder and spin off the rails, Marty stays sober, milking their high-powered mania for every last drop of pitch-black cinematic gold.

I suppose you could describe this solely as great late-period Scorsese, but it is unquestionably kin to GoodFellas and Casino – you can’t take your eyes or ears off it. For me this film is simply an all-time classic Scorsese flick.

If, as DiCaprio and Scorsese say, the movie is meant as an indictment of its characters’ lives and crimes, does it succeed as such or is it having too much fun for the moralism to hold water? {SPOILERS INCLUDED, HERE AND HENCEFORTH.}

Liam: Depiction does not, never has and never will equal endorsement, but you could argue that it shows two hours and change of the “fun” and about 30-40 minutes of the horror, and that the former outweighs the latter.

But consider what’s contained in the “horror” portion. Jordan Belfort crashes his car with his four-year-old daughter in it while high on coke, and just before that he basically rapes his wife and punches her in the stomach. IF YOU THINK SCORSESE IS SAYING BELFORT IS A COOL GUY AFTER PUNCHING HIS WIFE IN THE STOMACH, YOU’RE A FUCKING MORON. (Apparently, in real life, he kicked her down a flight of stairs, which would’ve caused me to vomit in my seat.) Even earlier, in the bit about giving the assistant $10,000 to shave her head, when you see her expression and how the distorted slow-motion camerawork lingers on her walking away as the office party goes truly apeshit, you can’t legitimately argue that Scorsese is playing the scene for chuckles. (Unless you’re a complete prude.) So in the end, it’s extremely morally ambiguous/complex but still an indictment.

Pete: While I understand how the Internet benefits from arguments like this, it’s pretty apparent that the movie is a hatchet-job of its characters. That’s why Scorsese doesn’t make Belfort an antihero. Belfort has nothing to make him sympathetic in any way, other than making him the protagonist and not openly demonizing him.

Lauren: Depiction doesn’t necessarily mean endorsement, but it certainly can be in faulty hands. Perspective, point of view, framing – those all affect whether or not a film believes in what it’s depicting.

Scorsese is the ultimate moralist – it’s the Catholic guilt in him. But throughout his repertoire, the moralizing has never been of his individual characters. It’s institutional. I agree with Pete that Belfort doesn’t have to be more than a protagonist. He’s there to usher us through the story – the story would have been exactly the same with another Wall Street guy. The only indicting Scorsese does with WoWS is of his audience. Some people seem to think that if we saw Belfort getting fucked over in the end, that’d be the only way Scorsese would show he didn’t approve of this man. But that didn’t actually happen. Belfort, as we see, still comes out on top. Who’s fault is that? Ours.

Charlie: Belfort ruins two marriages without any soul-searching. He pitches crappy penny-stocks to fleece unwitting first-time investors while flipping them off over the phone. He tries to bribe an FBI agent. He violently assaults his wife and places his daughter in extreme danger. He considers strapping cash to his buddy’s wife in order to sneak it through customs into Switzerland. People die in a plane crash on their way to a rendezvous with him.

The conclusions are obvious. To hold your nose and argue that this film glorifies the lifestyle is to completely lose sight of what you’re being shown. What Scorsese achieves, as with GoodFellas, is an honest, unvarnished depiction of how sleazy and insanely addictive this lifestyle can be, and how its participants cannot walk away or break their personal habits – even with a plum deal from the SEC sitting there on the table, a literal get-out-of-jail-free card.

Some are calling WoWS sexist. Regardless of directorial/authorial intent, could it be seen as such by people – other than those looking to make such suggestions right off?

Liam: Par for the course with its brand/inability to see beyond agenda, Bitch Media has attempted to call out WoWS and Scorsese’s entire ouevre as portraying women in some reductive light. It’d take me way too long to substantively argue why that isn’t remotely true of Scorsese’s work when you really look at it, and I’d probably be called a mansplainer by Bitch‘s Andi Ziesler and her defenders for doing so. But it isn’t true, and since WoWS is such a thorough evisceration of alpha masculinity, it can’t reasonably be called a genuinely sexist or misogynist film.

That said, when you have a movie in which most of the women are wives, girlfriends and prostitutes, you’re going to elicit those criticisms. And only one woman character is notably outside any of those roles – Kimmie Belzer, the Chanel-clad broker played memorably (but on the margins) by Stephanie Kurtzuba – so there could stand to be a bit more of a strong female presence.

Pete: This is more Internet bullshit. The women in WoWS are highly sexualized, but that’s because the narrative is Belfort’s tale and that’s how he thinks. If you look close enough, there are depth to these female characters. Whether they could’ve been given more screen time isn’t important. It’s there if you look – that’s what matters.

First, as Liam mentioned, there’s Kimmie Belzer. She’s really the only character who helps Belfort portray himself in a positive light. In fact, I would go so far as to say her exchange with him is the only time he’s sympathetic. But the scene works on two levels. It shows that Belfort is capable of treating women differently than Ferraris, and that it wasn’t just men who drank his Kool-Aid. Last I checked, it wasn’t sexist to show how we’re all capable of evil and do so cleverly in a sequence of short scenes. That’s just good filmmaking.

Then there’s Margot Robbie as the white-hot Naomi LaPaglia, Belfort’s trophy wife. She is basically sex incarnate, but WoWS doesn’t play down to her. See Lapaglia’s killer send-off of Belfort – “You knew what kind of woman I was when you married me.” The upper hand was always hers. She was complicit but never the victim.

To drive the point home, here’s what I just said conveyed in the film’s cinematography.

Charlie: This film does’t tell you it’s okay to treat women poorly. It simply says that many men do. Example: the discussion of the various tiers of prostitutes waltzing through Stratton Oakmont on any given day. Scorsese is not saying that prostitution is right. He’s just showing you that these men paid for it, compulsively.

Everybody in the theater feels their stomach drop to their ankles when Jordan slaps Naomi. If you didn’t already view Belfort with total disdain, you do after he socks her square in the gut. As with all other excesses in the film, WoWS doesn’t silently wink and nod at this behavior. It merely pulls back the curtain on it. This is what the pursuit of drugs, money, booze and sex is in the hands of a total sociopath and his legion of shitheads.

In discussing this, I’m reminded of this interaction between Hank Kingsley and Gene Siskel on The Larry Sanders Show, in which Siskel is forced to spoil the crucial twist from The Crying Game. The general point applies to any discussion of morality in WoWS.

Lauren: I’m not sure this is even Belfort’s tale. Like I said earlier, I think Belfort is interchangeable with thousands of other Wall Street blue-suits. In many ways, Travis Bickle, iconic as he is, is also interchangeable with thousands of other working-class guys who returned from Vietnam fucked up by rage and disillusionment.

Since the start of his career, most of Scorsese’s work has broken down the fragmented (white) male psyche that evolved post-Vietnam, post-women’s lib. That psyche hasn’t changed much over the last 40 years. In a 1976 interview with Roger Ebert, Scorsese said he considers Taxi Driver his feminist film because “it takes macho to its logical conclusion.” In WoWS, he now takes the Reaganism boom to its logical conclusion. Both conclusions, unfortunately, are terrible to women. In the ‘80s, it was just a bit more complicated because you had more women in power suits.

Andi’s Bitch post focuses too much on the individual, not the institutional. And Liam is right that WoWS is an evisceration of alpha masculinity. I’m not sure if masculinity takedowns are always feminist, but I agree with Scorsese when he said that feminist films don’t have to be solely about women – just like having a woman’s perspective doesn’t automatically make a movie (or book) feminist. That said, it does worry me that we keep focusing on the rape/domestic violence scene as Belfort’s truly terrible sexist moment. What about the attitudes on display for the other 175 minutes of the film? Maybe the reactions to WoWS, and Scorsese as a whole, speak to the current attitudes of women. Perhaps it’s rooted in how many young men grew up somehow idolizing Travis Bickle and may be dangerously identifying with Jordan Belfort (for even a second), even though Scorsese is condemning these characters in many ways.

I don’t think Scorsese hates women, at all. I would love to see him do a film from a woman’s perspective – particularly a gangster film (I have stories, Marty! Tweet at me!) – but I still love him anyway. Honestly, I think Scorsese feels bad for women and the men they’re stuck with.

Does the size and feeling of excess in the movie potentially undercut its potency? Did people want less, or are we all clamoring for the original four-hour cut to be available on DVD eventually?

Liam: I think in the end, it earns its length because of how excess is so hard-wired into the film’s message and who Jordan Belfort and his foul compatriots were. But in the final hour, there are several points that feel like they could’ve been endings, which might be disorienting to some (it was to me, but only slightly). At the same time, I hope to eventually see what that original cut was like.

Pete: At no point did I think this movie was too long, and its length is necessary to its overall message. Scorsese paints Wall Street as the American Circus Maximus, and it requires a lush Roman majesty, a Cecil B. Demille-sized tromp through lunacy and decadence. Anything less would have been bullshit.

Charlie: There’s no fat on this film. To Liam’s point, anything which might initially come across as excessive or unnecessary is added to illustrate the film’s central theme: these people didn’t know when to say when. And Pete is exactly right. Anything short of total and complete insanity was unacceptable.

Lauren: It’s weird: I don’t think the length was a problem, but I did feel that the film was bloated. Not in a bad way, necessarily. But it didn’t leave me enough time to digest as I watched it, hence why I felt (mentally) bloated when I left the theater. It doesn’t mean anything needed to be cut out of the film – I can’t think of anything I would like to see cut – but I needed a bit more…silence. As in, a look – the only time we really get one is the party scene with the head-shaven woman, which is why we keep going back to that as a pivotal, memorable moment. We absorbed that look, that sentiment, as it unfolded, but it’s one of the only times that happens in the film. Hell, Blue is the Warmest Color is just as long as WoWS. Surely Scorsese could have added some scenes of Leo and Jonah Hill sucking down oysters.

Unlike in many other Scorsese movies, we don’t get much of Jordan’s backstory – he’s got greed, if not immorality, hard-wired into him from the start. Should there have been more of a background to him?

Liam: To paraphrase Nick Lowe for the second time in a Thought Pollution piece, there is a beast in all of us, caged by frail and fragile bars. Jordan’s beast is quickly and easily unleashed, and some semblance of the desire for animalism, avarice and rapacious vice was probably present in him from birth. I don’t think it would’ve made much of a difference to show his upbringing.

Pete: I think the brilliant thing here is that we do see Jordan Belfort’s backstory. Does Matthew McConaughey not birth Jordan Belfort in the white light of that lunch meeting? Does he not literally give him his heartbeat by banging on his gorilla chest?

Belfort was born by the need to escape his marriage and to seek out wealth. This backstory is in the film. In omitting the details of Belfort’s childhood, he’s making the point that Belfort is anyone who forsakes his life in the quest for more.

Charlie: If you add backstory, what do you remove? Why can’t we just take Belfort at his word? From the first instant of his first day on the job, he proclaims his addiction. He gazes wide-eyed at the coked-up, kinetic energy swirling around him, and never looks back. What else do you need or want?

Lauren: I agree with Charlie: I think Belfort’s “growing up” moment is the scene with McConaughey.

How did people feel when it was over? Physically and emotionally.

Liam: In a nutshell, like this. I remember raising my arms up and shouting that on the way out of the Coolidge Corner Theater. I was also thoroughly disgusted and exhausted and emotionally wrecked. Only two other works of art this year have made me feel that many intense emotions at once – 12 Years a Slave and Yeezus. (Which reminds me: why the fuck wasn’t “Black Skinhead” on the actual soundtrack?? It was fucking perfect for the trailer!)

Pete: Like I had seen a perfectly executed movie that lived up to its hype – and my expectations – as a classic.

Charlie: Just this. Forever.

Lauren: I smoked many cigarettes.

Scorsese has a zillion planned projects, per usual – will what he did with Wolf affect the approach to his future work, in any way?
The films he’s got up next are Silence and The Irishman. Silence, about two 17th-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, is what we’ll probably see first. Wolf and Irishman (a drama about the Mafia assassin Frank Sheeran, starring DeNiro and Pacino [!!] and Joe Pesci [!!!!!!!!]) are thoroughly within Scorsese’s wheelhouse. Silence is not, but Marty does some of his most interesting/best work outside his comfort zone.

I think the biggest effect it’ll have is to keep his energy up as he continues to direct. I loved Shutter Island(not kidding!) and liked Hugo, but they’re still genre exercises despite both being definitively his. Wolf was just the right shot of smokestack lightnin’ necessary to bring back his take-no-prisoners mode, which he can deploy in countless ways.

Pete: This guy could die at any time. If Wolf is any indication, he intends to pursue film greatness with the same zest as Belfort – and that’s a good thing.

Charlie: I don’t know. Next time I see Marty, I’ll ask him.

Lauren: He’ll do whatever he wants and needs to do – that’s what he’s always done as a filmmaker.

{Liam, Pete, Lauren and Charlie can all be reached on Twitter at @liamchgreen, @pete_rizzo_, @lauren_barbato and @chazfelder, respectively, or by dropping thoughts and disagreements in the comments section.}

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