The Wolf Of Wall Street is enraging people. It is opulent! It is decadent! It is three hours long! Within the first five minutes of the film, Leonardo DiCaprio blows lines off a woman’s derriere, and a little person is catapulted at a target. Three hours later, Martin Scorsese has assaulted his audience with so many truly effed up images, that the Bacchanal debauchery begins to look like normalcy.
Scorsese’s genius, filthy, and relevant romp takes on the story of real-life '90s stockbroker Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) who made millions by cheating thousands – and got off easy for it. By the time Belfort was 26, he had made $46 million; and spent much of that money on quaaluds, women, and rich-man toys. DiCaprio takes on the role with equal parts arrogance, charm, and avarice, and Scorsese directs the story by much the same recipe. Are they overly-celebrating decadence and greed? Is The Wolf Of Wall Street offering an antidote to the problems it raises or is it merely reveling in them? These are the questions at hand, and circling all over the internet. As David Denby at The New Yorker writes, "The film, as you can see, is a bit of a trap for critics. Scorsese mounts the filthy, piggish behavior on such a grand scale that mere moral disapproval might seem squeamish, unimaginative, frightened." It's a film about morally reprehensible people and circumstances, and it's a film that passes no overt judgement. For that reason, it is rubbing many the wrong way.
Here's a look at why so many are so mad about the movie.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is a selfish movie. Just as Jordan does everything he can to "make a shitload of money," the long-scene, improv-heavy, style of filmmaking revels in its own craft. As David Edelstein at New York Magazine writes, “The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible. But you’re supposed to envy them anyway, because the alternative is working at McDonald’s and riding the subway alongside wage slaves.”
You are supposed to envy these characters, but it's equally impossible not to loathe them. As screenwriter Terrence Winter said in an interview, “We were all in agreement that we wanted to tell the trust version of this story and not the sanitized version.” And so they did.
At the screening I attended, martinis were served and cigars handed out. Decadence is one of the film's selling points, but while you're along for the intoxicatingly-charming ride, you will bump up against moments of uncomfortable self-reflection. Sip your martini, but it will sting just a little going down.
Scorsese deals with the subject matter's conflicting decadence by looking at it practically. In one particularly brilliant scene, Scorsese shows Jordan and his partners in a meeting to discuss the ins and outs of bringing a little person to the office to be catapulted at that aforementioned target. As Scorsese said in an interview, “I mean, if you’re going to have a little fun for your company, you want to get them riled up and you want to show your appreciation, and you actually do organize throwing little people against a target – well, that doesn’t just happen off the street. People get together and have a meeting about it. You have to discuss this, OK? So there’s the humor right there.” This kind of opulence doesn't just happen, it is planned. And by showing the planning stages of it, Scorsese really brings a magnifying glass to the insanity of it all.
The film’s official running time is 180 minutes. Films of that length are usually reserved for wars, or disasters, or at least something with a strong moral fiber. Lou Leminick at The New York Post calls this movie a “dubious investment of your time.” He also calls it “exhausting.” Edelstein at New York Magazine calls the movie “an endurance test.” Actress Hope Holiday wrote after a screening of the film, "last night was torture at the Academy – The Wolf Of Wall Street – three hours of torture – same disgusting crap over and over again." But that was Jordan's life: Make money, take drugs, sleep with women, rinse and repeat. The original film was four-hours long, and it was only after careful editing that they got it down to three. Sure, it's bloated. But that's the point.
Jordan Belfort has rotten morals, but can we really fault Scorsese for bringing those rotten morals to the screen? As Stephanie Zacharek at the Village Voice writes, “you might be wondering if anyone, including Scorsese, is ever going to call these guys on their self-absorbed idiocy. What, exactly, does he think of these people?” The real question is, do we really need to know? As a headline at Indiewire retorts, “Real life hasn’t punished Jordan Belfort. Why should The Wolf Of Wall Street?” Belfort’s ending isn’t as dismal as say, Tony Montana’s, but his story is real and by not tacking on a Hollywood ending, Scorsese is making an even stronger point about this Wall Street loophole culture. As DiCaprio said in an interview, "It's a very conscious choice that [Winter] made in the screenplay not to show the ramifications of their actions. Throughout the picture, you go on this acid trip with them, without any regard for the people around them."
It's a movie about male-ego worship, and in the vein of Goodfellas or even The Hangover, about the swinging-dick camaraderie that defines a certain type of male bond. There are orgies, prostitues, more naked women than naked men, and there is an absolutely scarring scene where a female employee shaves her head for $10,000, but this is the atmosphere of the time, the place, and what went on. The misogyny isn’t a Scorsese construction, it is is a reflection of Jordan Belfort's life. Michelle Dean at Indiewire argues the film would have benefited with an NC-17 rating, and she may be right. But approach it like a sociological study, not a guide to what is right.
After a screening at the Academy, a filmgoer went up to Scorsese with some choice words: "shame on you, disgusting." Edelstein calls the movie, "thumpingly insipid." What's the point? From my seat, at least, it seems to be flat-out entertainment with a splash of culture-loathing. When asked if he still had faith in the power of film, Scorsese replied, "Can a film really change anything? I mean, what was the last time? Maybe the Italian neo-realists, where they became the voice and the heart and the soul of Italy, a nation that had been destroyed. I don't know. But, like anything else – a book or painting or music – if it stays with you, if it's part of the culture, maybe it can make some headway."
This is a black as night comedy with a ferocious bite and a bitter after taste. There is no coddling and hand-holding here, but Scorsese is in the business of making movies, not telling us what to do. Can life really be so reprehensible if it's this much fun? Scorsese gives no answer, we have to do that dirty work for ourselves.