interlude: I review The Wolf of Wall Street. (I hated it.)

5 Jan

1.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a depraved, decadent, and boring film so in love with itself that no one involved seems to get how bad a movie it is. But it isn’t just a bad film, it’s an evil movie.

Scorsese and company have made a paean to a vile, horrid system. And although critics have given them the rubber stamp of satire, “truthfulness,” “bravery,” and so on, the critics are wrong.

My temple has been sullied.

2.

Beth and I left the theater to a night of wind and snow. We rushed home to get the kids to bed and relieve Beth’s dad, and as we did so, Beth began her rant against the movie. This is the angriest she’s been after a movie since we saw Oldboy in the theater. (She didn’t speak to me for a forty-five minute train-ride home after that one.) What follows is a small taste, with her comments in italics:

I can’t believe we just wasted three hours on that movie. We could have cleaned the apartment, we could have gotten the kids to sleep on time. We should have gone to see American Hustle.

It’s based on that guy’s memoir. The movie kept saying he could sell anything, and then he takes his disgusting crimes, turns it into a book, and then sells them to us. It’s enraging.

So we just handed over a small portion of our hard-earned cash. We’re the schmucks with no paper towels and a dirty fucking house and those rich assholes, all of them—Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese—are laughing their asses to the bank with our twelve fucking dollars in their pockets.

No, that scene with Kyle Chandler is the movie. We are those schlubs on the subway. We bought penny stocks. “Sure, Martin Scorsese, here’s our twelve dollars. Here’s three hours of our lives.” Maybe it is a great work of genius. That he has convinced us all to see this movie, and fucked us up the ass with it. The movie is perfect. Form follows function.

It. Blows. My. Balls.

I’m not going to see another movie in the theater for two years.

(Beth revisited the movie a bit later in the evening)

I think the movie makes the most sense in tandem with the rest of Scorsese’s career. He’s saying that these guys are just as bad, if not worse, than the dudes in Goodfellas, only those guys all go to jail or get killed. These guys get away scott-free. They get movies made about them. I’m still not going to see a Scorsese movie in the theater again.

3.

Scorsese is a hero[1] of mine. I’ve always felt that his immense knowledge of film and his skill with the camera was augmented by a moral intelligence. He’s made three or four of my favorite movies of all time: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, After Hours, Goodfellas. Plus he champions forgotten filmmakers, film restoration, makes interesting documentaries and so on. He’s always struck me as a decent person in an often indecent business who carries a heavy load of Catholic guilt, using his movies to work through his quandaries.

But he’s lost his way. Somewhere, one of our most gifted and driven directors has stumbled.

I think this movie fits with the late-period decadence of Scorsese, an often tortuous and very public decline in quality that seems to be inextricably linked to Leonardo D. Shutter Island is a nightmare, just terrible; The Departed is a flashy piece of well-made trash; The Gangs of New York is an at times beautiful nightmare, but what a train wreck. This leaves only The Aviator, his one solid movie in fourteen years, and it has problems, too.

Time was, Scorsese’s little side projects were fascinating little gems, like After Hours and The King of Comedy: unpredictable, stringent, funny, harrowing, lean as an arrow. Hell, even his remake of Cape Fear has its adherents, with a wild and fascinating performance from Bobby D.

But his post-2000 work was never inelegant or shoddy. His movies have always had interesting side characters. Something to say. Little moments that stick with you.

I won’t go into the Wolf’s manifold flaws—it has no structure; good scenes are cut short and bad scenes run too long; it has no plot, so the characters have to carry the story only the characters are vapid, one-dimensional and boring; the look of the movie is gaudy and inelegant; and the script is loud and flabby; there’s no sense of time, so the entire movie could take place in two years or twenty; the soundtrack is non-existent—except for its deformed moral sense.

Beth’s contention is that the movie is a brilliant piece of satire, delivering its message hours after you’ve finished watching it. “The whole thing is a middle finger from the ultra-rich.”

She’s being generous. I think the movie is nothing less than one of the most opulent disasters I’ve seen in fifteen years. Pauline Kael called Straw Dogs the first great fascist piece of art. She’s right in a fashion; that movie celebrates Dustin Hoffman smiting his enemies. He doesn’t outsmart them or form a coalition of other like-minded people or anything like that. He just punches, kicks, chops and boils them until he is victorious. The movie is a celebration of a type of might-makes-right punitive justice. I admire Straw Dogs, but it is, at its core, evil.

So is The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie doesn’t interrogate, unpack or contextualize the evils of unregulated capitalism[2]. The movie doesn’t contest any of the basic assumptions of Wall Street. The movie doesn’t do anything but catalog the tiresome sexual escapades of DiCaprio and his chubby cronies. Men behaving badly. There, I just summarized the entire movie in three words.

Worst. Movie. Of. The. Decade.

Worst. Movie. Of. The. Decade.

But unlike Straw Dogs, which is a compelling, piece of filmmaking, Wolf is boring. So fucking boring.

4.

I’m not through with the movie’s lack of ethics, morals, decency. A movie can show a depraved or deformed mind or character and still have moral intelligence—Bad Lieutenant, Zodiac, hell, even Pasolini’s Salo—but Wolf of Wall Street is profoundly imbalanced. There’s no moral perspective at all. And as there’s no real comeuppance, the movie has no narrative balance. It also has no poetry, no beauty, no life to it. Amidst the orgies and the yachts and the mounds of cocaine and the flashy clothes and the absurd cars the movie has no time for people eating, drinking, moving through the sunlight. The movie substitutes—as a narrative choice—screaming and shouting and speechifying for any kind of emotion, tension or drama. Worse, the movie offers—as a narrative choice—the audience absolutely nothing to root or worry for. Everything is surface. Everything is gloss. We aren’t given even a sliver of something to care about. The best thing about the movie is Matthew McConaughy, and he exits after a mere ten minutes.

Other directors have carried their talents within their flaws. DePalma, for example, used his weaknesses as his virtues, especially at the beginning of his career: self-conscious camerawork, heavy-handed visual themes, weird acting. At a point in his career, his bold, self-referential style was cutting edge. But for twenty years, his movies have been pale comparisons of his former work, indulging in the same tricks, only no longer fascinating or new.

Scorsese always balanced his tendencies towards excess with his humane appreciation of his characters, and an underlying moral sense. He built his films out of internal conflicts in his characters. But here, there is no subtext, no nuance or ambiguity; It’s all surface. But if this is his point, if this is his indictment—that we live in a society so rotten we spend our money to watch the depredations of the assholes who’ve ruined it—did the movie have to run three fucking hours?

If you want to see a movie that subjectively lowers you into the consciousness of a narcissistic Wall Street trader, go re-watch American Psycho, a movie that balances the torturous horror of this decadence but with wit, panache, and a wicked political bite.

Unsophisticated and childish, unthoughtful and churlish, petulant and obnoxious and irritating and un-literary, nasty and brutish, misanthropic and racist (I don’t have the heart to get into these other flaws, but my god, the women in this movie are given no internal lives at all, they’re just tits and asses and smiling faces)—The Wolf of Wall Street is a smug, shitty movie about an unrepentantly revolting human being.

There are a few laughs, but so what? They come at the expense of our moral outrage. Near the end of the movie I heard a ringing in my ears. It was the death of American cinema.


[1] His Conversations with Marty is the best introduction to film I’ve ever seeen. It’s marvelous.

[2] Go watch the original Wall Street if you want to see a great movie about the injustices built into the system.

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5 Responses to “interlude: I review The Wolf of Wall Street. (I hated it.)”

  1. McGrath January 5, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    What about Hugo?

  2. CMrok93 January 6, 2014 at 12:08 am #

    It may go on a tad long, but it was always a fun watch, no matter what it was that Scorsese or DiCaprio were doing. Good review.

  3. Mike Marino January 24, 2014 at 12:54 am #

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, although I thought DiCaprio gave a strong performance of a drug crazed maniac who is up to his ass in hundred dollar bills! Uncle Mike

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] During the movie, I leant to the former. I gave Jones the benefit of the doubt. But as the movie trudged on, with no real twists or electricity, I grew weary. And with fifteen minutes to go, Beth brought it into stark relief, saying, “This is the worst, most self-indulgent movie I’ve ever seen. I would rather watch The Wolf of Wall Street again.” […]

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