In Criticism of: The Wolf of Wall Street

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In a world that is built on excess, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is the living, breathing, hulking embodiment of such excess.

There is no doubt that when it had emerged that Scorsese was adapting Jordan Belfort’s life to the big screen, excitement had been growing and growing to the point of pandemonium. With Leonardo DiCaprio on board, hot off the heels of his charismatic role in the extravagant The Great Gatsby, we had the re-teaming of the duo that had stuck gold with The Departed and several other terrific pictures. That excitement finally exploded when the first trailer blazed into existence, coupled with the pulse-pounding Kanye West track, it looked as though we were to expect something of a masterpiece both from a directorial standpoint by Scorsese and also an acting masterclass from DiCaprio. Rumblings of Oscar nominations filtered through various discussion boards, highlighting how this could possibly be a return to the Goodfellas era of Scorsese.

At long last, the film was released and met with ravenous praise, Empire calling it ‘Scorsese’s funniest and most focused film in a long time’ and The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin calling it ‘Scorsese’s best film in 20 years’. Caught up in the whirlwind of such high praise, as well as many people my age eulogising about it’s greatness, I made my way to my nearest cinema, squeezed between two couples and sat through the 3-hour epic.

I couldn’t tell you what exactly irked me, but I left the screening with a distinctly bad aftertaste. Gone was the excitement of watching a masterful auteur’s work onscreen, what remained was a burning confusion. Had I really watched the same film that people were calling the best film in some time? Had I just misread it? Was it the two sets of couples I was sandwiched between that had hindered my enjoyment? After pondering such things on the way home, I had come to no coherent conclusion. What I did know is that I hadn’t enjoyed Wolf as much as everyone else.

Once it had reached the shelves on DVD, after garnering an astonishing five Oscar nominations in key categories, I decided I must watch it again. Having known what to expect, including the running time, I tried. This time however, I picked up on what had previously bugged me the first time. The sheer excess that was being realised on the screen. Never before had I witnessed such a deluge of sex, drugs and constant profanity. Of course, I hadn’t expected anything sanitised from Scorsese but it had felt like with his latest feature, he had gone out of his way to bludgeon us over the head with these elements. To this day, it has the unholy record of containing the most f-words in a feature film (569 uses, make of that what you will). That alone should give you an idea of the type of excess I’m talking about. Now, that’s not to say that such elements should be exempt, but in the attempt to create the world of Jordan Belfort, I felt that Scorsese had lost at his attempt to film a sharp satire and instead made a film that paraded unashamedly in its depravity.

Not only that, even with those elements, his 23rd feature was an exercise in excess in terms of its running time. Sitting through the film was exhausting, scampering from scandal to scandal with gay abandon. The theatrical cut stood at a butt-numbing 180 minutes. Whilst watching, you couldn’t help but feel that Scorsese and his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker could’ve easily shaved 30 minutes. Considering it had often been compared to Goodfellas due to its many Scorseseisms (Long unedited tracking shots, an unlikable lead’s rise to power, said character breaking the fourth wall, a running narration throughout) he could have taken a leaf out of his own book considering that film stood at a much leaner 146 minutes.

Now there’s no questioning the off-the-wall, loudly brilliant and weirdly magnetising performance from DiCaprio nor the kinetic, energetic filming from Scorsese, but what remains is the missed opportunity to surgically satire the world’s obsession in greed, excess and desire. Instead, what remains is simply an exercise in these things.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), directed by Martin Scorsese, is distributed in the UK by Universal Pictures. Certificate 18.  

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Kinda sorta maybe like movies. So I kinda sorta maybe review them. Kinda. Sorta. Stoooodent, Pizza Enthusiast and reigning king over all things couch-potato.

12 Comments

  1. avatar

    100% agree with you on the running time, I think there’s room to cut about 20 minutes. Most of it flows quite well, but after the first hour it starts going “and then this happened while we were high”, which grates after a while.

    However, I really don’t think Scorcese missed the point. I think he is using the allure of all that depravity to hold the audience accountable, and to bring us to a greater position of understanding and action, as well as outrage. Because the whole point of it is, is that the magnetism of Belfort is just hyper-masculinity bullshit, that becomes increasingly ugly and more pantomime as the film goes on. Not to mention how he behaves around Margot Robbie’s character.

    • avatar

      Whilst I do agree that as an audience we are being held accountable by being witnesses of such depravity, I do not quite see how that brings us any closer to understanding. In fact, I think as an audience, people have idolised Belfort’s lifestyle. Wishing that they had the life he did. Whilst Scorsese might have been doing what you said, most of which would have not crossed the majority of the audiences minds. If that’s the case’s making an extremely subtle point with an abhorrently large instrument.

      • avatar

        I’ve had this discussion with someone before, who said that it’s the director’s responsibility when they risk an audience taking away the wrong message from their film. I find myself in a weird place, because whilst the “wrong” message being taken away was communicated to an audience using the exact same explicit choices as would the “right” message that I take from the film, and so Scorsese is responsible, I don’t think that means he’s endorsing misogyny, and I certainly don’t think he should be held accountable for the awful, awful things that people take away from his film, when they’re taken away as positives. If that makes sense?

        I mean, it’s all part of engaging a critical conversation. We’re here agreeing – at least I think we agree – that Scorsese is condemning both the actions of Belfort and the world that propagates them, and allows those assholes to get away with it all (which is OUR world), but you’re saying that it wasn’t explicit enough, but I think it was. Meanwhile, someone actually thinks that all the drugs, the manipulation, the hypermasculinity is AWESOME, and they’re the people that we should have these conversations with.

        Definitely the most difficult part about the film is how Scorsese doesn’t let the audience off the hook for how simultaneously funny, entertaining, and kind of exciting all that depravity is. It’s like watching Porn, it’s a masturbatory fantasy. We’re supposed to be thinking it’s awesome, so when Scorsese flips the script and makes us realise just how much of a sad prick Belfort really is, and the harsh truths of the world that allowed him to continue, we can walk away with a much more complex thing to chew over. None of the morals or ideas in the film are simple, because it’s a very intentional encapsulation of what the world, what our world, really was, still is like.

  2. avatar
    Scott Williams on

    I think what was really missed here was the opportunity to give a decent and interesting criticism. So it was too long, and excessive, fine, I’m not sure anybody would disagree. But you can’t just say that its satire failed without expanding. Why did it fail? I can think of a few reasons, they’re probably the same ones you would give, but you didn’t give them. Shame really…

    • avatar

      Apart from the fact that I wasn’t aware how long I could ramble on for, how would you describe the ways in which Scorsese failed?

      • avatar
        Scott Williams on

        Just to reiterate, I’m not saying you don’t have reasons, just simply that you didn’t present them here! I would say that it isn’t dark enough. It’s lurid and profane, but not upsetting. Apart from a scene of domestic violence which is quickly brushed off, things play pretty light the whole time, from comedy to comedy to set-piece to set-piece. Scorsese fails to make us think because he’s too busy trying to make us laugh.

        • avatar

          HAHAHAHA, domestic violence and rampant misogyny throughout are things that we can “laugh off” and that are brushed off.

          Belfort’s portrayed as a spiteful, prickish (towards both his wives, ordinary people, employees, the good, decent FBI agents), and ultimately pathetic addict and misogynist.

          • avatar
            Scott Williams on

            Did I say laughed off? No. I said brushed off. And you’re simply wrong. His employees worship him as a god. A scene of domestic violence doesn’t compensate for the fact that Robbie is simply a walking vagina and an artifice for sex gags. The film does not criticise misogyny, it is misogynistic; it does not criticise excess, it is excessive. Maybe read what people have said before breaking out the caps lock next time, and afford people the same level of respect.

          • avatar

            Yes his employees worship him as a god, but also those employees are 90% total assholes. They’re drug addicts too. They’re pathetic. They aren’t meant to represent the audience’s POV, because we’re introduced to Jordan Belfort first! He’s addressing the camera, the audience. Those employees DID worship Belfort. And Scorcese trusts/dares the audience enough to see them as the pathetic assholes that they were.

            Of course it’s excessive, their lives were excessive. I think you’re equating the display of misogyny, drugs, and prostitution, as condoning all of those things.

            Yes Robbie’s character HAS sex, that doesn’t make her a walking vagina. Genuinely – she wouldn’t have blown up the way she did if she didn’t have more to her character. She seduces Jordan, she engages that excess, but she’s also got a strong enough will to want him to not be an asshole once they’re married. She’s a loving mother, and even IF her character appears hollow, it shouldn’t stop the domestic violence being as horrid as it is. Admittedly, not the most likeable character, but I think part of that is because Belfort doesn’t see her as a real person, so as we see a lot of the world in the same way that he does, we don’t get a completely deep character – plus not all female characters need to be “strong female characters.

            Why do YOU think the domestic violence is so unimportant? Genuinely curious.

          • avatar
            Scott Williams on

            No, I don’t think you are genuinely curious, I think you’re just interested in espousing your very singular interpretation of the film. Your analysis is incredibly desperate; you keep trying to fit things into categories that you have already determined without any genuine or honest consideration for the text itself. You want it to be satire, so it is. You want the excess and the misogyny to mean something, so they do. To you. But not to me. And that’s because none of what you are saying is in the film; there is nothing in any facet of the film to suggest what you are saying. I was particularly amused by your desperate attempt to reconfigure Margot Robbie’s character as one with any sort of weight or satirical power.
            Oh, but if she was so one-note then why did she blow up after this film? Let me tell you George, most people are very simple. They see her and they think wow she’s hot and so cast away go the studios. You only have to watch the recent Suicide Squad trailer to see what I’m talking about. She sells because sex sells and her sex is what is selling. Don’t delude yourself out of some infatuation with Scorsese. Right, that’ll do I think. I didn’t like the way this started, nor do I like the way it’s continuing, I didn’t write this article, I’m not looking to debate this to the extent that Eddy or you are because, frankly, I think it’s a bad film not worthy of this level of attention. Adios.

  3. avatar
    Hollie Geraghty on

    I have to say the length of this film has never bothered me. I could literally watch another three hours of it because I liked it so much. I really think the excess of the sex, drugs, alcohol etc is necessary because that’s the reality of the world Jordan Belfort lived in. I agree it does seem to glamourise it a bit but I guess most people would know that that kind of lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Also, the most important thing is that he eventually falls from the top (like a generic gangster film). Gangsters are often glamourized but they never maintain that lifestyle, they always fall. I think that’s the point Scorsese is trying to make, and it definitely wouldn’t be as effective if he didn’t portray the excess in Belfort’s life. Interesting to see another view on the film though as I loved it as soon as I watched it!

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