Summary: As a break from the FM website’s usual fare of geopolitical realism, film critic Locke Peterseim continues to show us how recent films reveal our love of empty spectacle — perhaps because they echo the spiritual emptiness of modern America. Today he reviews “Wolf of Wall Street”. His bottom line (spoiler!):
… it’s so full, so masterful, so good at depicting depravity with such enticing, rapturous glee that it never really finds time to make a point, to truly slip the knife into the vicious, poisonous fat sack of American Capitalism and the ass-bag sociopaths who gorge themselves at its teat while forcing “weaker” others to starve. This film is too good at what it does to really do any “good.””
While watching Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street last month, I jotted in my notes: “Just try to write about this without mentioning Goodfellas”. So there’s that challenge already failed.
After all, as everyone has noted, Wolf and 1990’s Goodfellas share quite a bit of cinematic and structural DNA, not just through the obvious Scorsese stylistic flares (charging visual verve backed by a muscular rock soundtrack and Thelma Schoonmaker’s usual energetic order-from-chaos editing prowess) and structure (a rise-and-fall tale of amoral misbehavior narrated by a swaggering bad-boy pirate-wannabe), but also thematically. Both are supposed to capture the violent, larcenous, self-destructive, coke-and-dick-fueled, dark heart of the American Dream. You know: ScorseseLand.
However, in the month since Wolf of Wall Street opened, it’s become clear that in terms of public reception and pundit-critic discourse, the film it most resembles is last winter’s Zero Dark Thirty. As it was dragged from the Cineplex into the pundit-sphere, Kathryn Bigelow’s Kill Bin Laden epic ended up not playing, as intended, as an unblinking look at murky wartime morality, but being criticized (both unfairly and fairly) as a CIA-backed advertisement for the ends-justify-the-means usefulness of torture.
Likewise, the swirl of discussion around Wolf quickly shifted this past month from the film’s cinematic merits (which are undeniably impressive — at 70, Scorsese is working at the technical peak of his skills; like Spielberg, he’s a maestro who seems to effortlessly nail every note) to questions about Wolf’s intent and context. Does it successfully subvert the unfettered, corrosive, destructive Capitalism and excess on screen (plenty of sex, drugs, and junk bonds)? Or do its three hours of fist-pumping, adrenaline-spiking, naughty, boorish thrills end up an inadvertent advertisement for exactly the sort of behavior it set out to subvert?
The trouble started with a mid-December screening of The Wolf of Wall Street for a theater of half-drunk Wall Street brokers, who, according to Business Insider writer Stephen Perlberg, cheered on the film’s alpha-lout anti-hero Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his penny-stock chop-shop cronies as they swindled and swaggered across the ‘90s, literally snorting coke off hookers butts and wrecking sports cars, helicopters, and yachts while bilking average middle-class investing rubes out of their cash and often their retirement funds. As with Tony Soprano and Goodfellas, it seemed the same “bad guys” the film supposedly set out to expose ended up loving it for all the wrong reasons.
Instantly, as with Zero Dark Thirty last year (a film I think is very good), movie critics, film geeks, and very entertained moviegoers leaped to Scorsese and Wolf’s defense, pooh-poohing the idea that Great Art has to have a Big Positive Message. And they’re right about that — in fact, too often around Oscar Season, we get bombarded with Big Positive Message Movies that ram home a soft-headed, feel-good agenda. Does Great Art have to say something good? No, but to rise above mere titillating entertainment, it should say something and say it well.
The thing is, cineophiles too often hide inside the film, so in love with film making as an art and craft, so easily dazzled by cinematic virtuosity, that they want to keep it sealed away from the real world and real issues. That works more smoothly with historical fiction or fantasy (including rom-coms and action flicks), but The Wolf of Wall Street is ostensibly about real people committing real financial atrocities that ruined real lives.
The biggest besotted cinephile here is Scorsese himself, who, again, like Spielberg, has spent his entire adult life not just in love with film, but completely informed as an artist by film. Both Scorsese and Spielberg have reached the point where they have the cinematic skills and, usually, the Industry backing to make any kind of films about whatever they want. Unfortunately, too often, all they want to make films about is how awesome it is to make really great films.
With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese and writer Terence Winter (who made his name writing for The Sopranos and co-producing Boardwalk Empire with Scorsese) clearly want to believe they’re shining a light on the imperfect human condition as well as the evils of rabid Capitalism. But however exciting and bright (and darkly sexy) that light is, however much it illuminates, just shining it on something doesn’t create art or meaning — without some sort of strong subtext and deft thematic subversion, it just creates well-lit, captivating spectacle. It creates entertainment.
The problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it’s so full, so masterful, so good at depicting depravity with such enticing, rapturous glee that it never really finds time to make a point, to truly slip the knife into the vicious, poisonous fat sack of American Capitalism and the ass-bag sociopaths who gorge themselves at its teat while forcing “weaker” others to starve. This film is too good at what it does to really do any “good.”
Reportedly trimmed down from six to four to three hours by Scorsese and Schoonmaker, so much is stuffed (beautifully, excitingly stuffed, mind you) into the film that there’s no room left around the loudly jumping, jittering, jazzed-out text for any sort of satiric subtext.
As well-made as Goodfellas is, as beloved as it is, not many people come away from viewing it (perhaps for the tenth time or so) thinking, “Boy crime really does not pay, it just destroys lives.” No one remembers Henry Hill in his robe getting the paper at the end – they remember him hustling his date toward a VIP table at the club, they remember “Am I a clown?” and “Now go get your shine box.” Likewise, most people won’t come away from Wolf of Wall Street thinking, “God, unchecked greed and jacked-up steroid Capitalism really ruined a lot of lives on both sides of the ledger.” No, they’ll remember dwarf-tossing, and coke snorted off hooker’s asses, and (undeniably hilarious) Quaalude stupors.
The moral horrors of the film aren’t the dwarf-tossing and hooker-abusing and car-wrecking hi-jinks of a handful of boorish bad boys, but rather in the portrait of a not-so-long-ago ‘90s culture and a still-celebrated-today “greed is good” mentality that didn’t create our current precarious financial state (Belfort’s penny-ante firm’s crimes were very small potatoes compared to what went on at much larger global financial firms in the ‘00s), but it pumped up the still-virulent myth of financial immorality as a big-dick-swinging macho virtue. On screen, all that debauched, decadent bravado and sleazy, in-your-face swagger through heaps of sex and drugs just plays as empty, pointless energy, much like the film itself. It’s all so outrageously , egregiously out-sized and sexy-ugly, we tell ourselves, it must be satiric, right? Right?
But still we get seduced by that sort of chest-thumping. (Literal chest-thumping, in one of Matthew McConaughey’s two, brief-but-delightful Big Dog scenes.) We get swept away by the visual, visceral thrill of the cinema, all the while ironically telling ourselves on some level that it’s okay to root for the bad guys on screen because “It’s just a movie, just escapist fun.”
(Film critics tend to love big-screen bad boys and their exciting, transgressive shenanigans. Too many reviews of The Wolf of Wall Street spent paragraph after paragraph re-capping the characters’ lurid exploits with the sort of breathless giddiness of teenagers sharing tales of a cooler kid’s sexual conquests and disciplinary infractions.)
There is also a tendency on our parts these days to excuse bad behavior — even start to admire it just a little — when the perpetrators are so brazen; so arrogant; and so fully “own it.” Too many recovering addicts at meetings and repentant, redeemed sinners at church pulpits remain romantically enraptured by the glorious excesses of their own stories, narcissists getting high off the mesmerizing floor show of their own wild failings. Horrific tales of debauched immorality and sociopath self-destruction become so exciting, so captivating that they become fetishized.
The real Jordan Belfort certainly “owns” his maniacal ‘90s misdeeds — his 2007 memoir is full of “lookit-me” bullshit braggadocio, and he makes his living these days as a motivational speaker, sharing his gifts with those willing to pay handsomely to learn how to utterly fuck up their Karma. In the film version, we never give much of a crap about Belfort’s rise and fall — why would we care about a human who puts so much energy into being resolutely subhuman? Belfort and his wormy ilk weren’t nearly the Masters of the Universe they want you to believe — they aren’t the bankers who nearly destroyed the world economy in the late ‘00s. Balfour isn’t a wolf, he’s a hyena.
It seems the person most seduced by Belfort’s brand of self-aggrandizing bullshit was the guy who ended up playing him on film. The Wolf of Wall Street is jammed full of the usual terrific Scorcese cast: McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler, and many more all do fine work on screen. And DiCaprio is also excellent, but in that dazzling-but-deadened way we’ve come to expect from him these days.
It’s frustrating, but the more skilled an actor DiCaprio becomes, the less emotionally honest he feels — and the more he plays “real people” (like Belfort here, J. Edgar Hoover for Eastwood, or Howard Hughes again for Scorsese in The Aviator), the less he seems like a real person on screen. So many of his roles anymore, including in Shutter Island, Django Unchained, Inception, and The Great Gatsby, feel like puppet plays, like an impressive but detached, mechanical Hollywood representation of a character. Call it the Jack Nicoholson-ization of DiCaprio — where a talented actor’s screen personas steadily become more like over-sized, artificial echoes. DiCaprio does a fine, captivating, even seductive movie-star job with these roles, but they feel more like ideas, more like thematic or narrative devices than human beings.
The darker truth is that many of us, deep down in our hard-wired evolutionary biology lizard brains, secretly admire these assholes and their lives — the way nerds in high school rage against but secretly want to be the superstar jock athlete. If we want to live our lives vicariously through a three-hour hedonism fest, then Wolf of Wall Street plays like a grand circus of delightful depravity. One that our giddy love for can be rationalized away as appreciation of a “satire” so subtle as to be non-existent. We get to celebrate it as “great cinema” and then side-step away when the film’s (not its characters’) morality is questioned. After all, we can tell ourselves and others, great art doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be about “good things.”
On the other hand, if we look around at the news today — the real news, not the stories about Duck Dynasty and Justin Beiber — and shudder with revulsion, fear, and anger at things like insane, terrifying income inequality and the lack of any real accountability or punishment whatsoever for those individuals and institutions that knowingly and willingly gutted the American Middle Class, the American Dream, and very nearly the American (and world) economy, then we may still guiltily laugh and thrill at The Wolf of Wall Street for three hours, but leave the theater feeling dirty.
And feeling cheated out of the potential of a film that could have put all its awesome cinematic powers to work not just entertaining with Fellini-esque orgies of what is so gloriously wrong, but actually saying something about the problem.
About the author
Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.
Some of his other reviews:
- “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
- Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
- 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
- Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe.
- “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
- Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind.
- A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
- Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much.
- “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us.
- Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
- Fury: the big screen display of America’s love of war, & inability to understand it.
- Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.
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