Monday, January 6, 2014

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese. 2013.

J. J. Abrams burnt out Star Trek in two movies, George Lucas tinkered Star Wars to death and then gave up, Steven Spielberg missed his true calling with Indiana Jones, Ridley Scott has no taste in scripts, Tarantino and Fincher and Burton got bogged down in their own shticks, and I worry that Peter Jackson and Daniel Nolan will get bogged down in nerdy details like James Cameron.

Enter Martin Scorsese, who at 71 delivers a walloping three hour drama as his 23rd major cinematic release. Add to that Scorsese's bravado in directing a frank riff on Citizen Kane, and I think some recognition is in order. Would that it were a better picture.

Two major themes run through Wolf, the first revolving around its Kane roots and tragic arc. Alas, this theme is incomplete to the point of hobbling the movie and for four reasons.

First, we never get a clear picture of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo diCaprio) as a young man. He seems innocent enough, but tells us of his ambition and that he went to Wall Street because it was the only place big enough to satisfy them. On the other hand his first boss becomes his mentor for a short while and seems to corrupt him. Which is it, or perhaps it was the riches which seduced him?

Second, we have conflicting information as to why Jordan pursues greater and greater spoils. Here Jordan says he has a big appetite and there that it's in his nature. Early on Jordan says he is ambitious, but later he seems to pursue particular material ends. Jordan even says that he's addicted to money, a diagnoses which implies clinical analysis. Lastly, when Jordan refuses a plea deal, is this because of any or all of the aforementioned, or some other which might fit the bill, such as hubris? On top of this ambiguity, Jordan is the narrator, a fact which calls everything he says into question since we surely can't presume self knowledge on his part.

Third, the denouement fails to deliver because Jordan never has a moment of recognition. Note that while Jordan talks about the good he does with his money and yet wastes and flaunts it is dramatically acceptable: he's allowed to have contradictory ideas. We however still need to know what is going on and why. We don't need to see retribution or redemption, but Jordan has to change for anything to have happened. Whether your protagonist is Oedipus, King Lear, or Charles Foster Kane, he needs a moment of recognition of the scope of the drama so we can feel pity, fear, indignation, or anything so precise that we should take notice.

The obvious objection to this premise is the antihero, such as Scorsese's own Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Travis is infamously lacking in self awareness, but that's established and developed through the plot and is in fact the theme of the film: we wait for the time bomb to go off as Travis' disaffection grows.

In Taxi Driver that explosion is the finale, an active denouement which results from the plot's activity which is the result of his character. As such the resolution is significant. In contrast, Jordan Belfort is aware to some extent, the difference being that the script throws a bunch of explanations against the wall: appetite, ambition, corruption, and so forth. Also, because what happens in Wolf can't refer back to a definitive characteristic, see paragraph four above, the action lacks meaning and therefore so does the ending. There can be tragedy without character but not without activity.

Fourth and finally, all of Jordan's profligate libertinism which consumes the lion's share of Wolf's runtime is meaningless because it neither impacts the plot–Jordan's downfall is caused by the accidents of others, the cheapest and least satisfying of plot resolutions–nor does it have any effect on Jordan. Jordan is the kind of man he is because of his character, but what is the result of his actions? Only at the end does Jordan fleetingly reflect on how he misses getting "fucked up," at which we wonder first whether all of his antics were an escape from some fears or such, and then why that thread was never developed and only even mentioned 2.5 hours into the movie. With that lack throughout, none of the spectacles of debauchery have the power to rouse any fear or pity and thus for all of their panache, lay flat.

The other theme running through Wolf is Jordan's fascinating-yet-unexplored talent for demagoguery. Jordan has the uncanny ability to persuade and inspire. Whether he's selling penny stocks to rubes on the phone or encouraging his employees to work and improve their lives, he's magnetic. Still, this theme falters in the drama, for while his artful persuasion explains his rise, Jordan's downfall still happens by chance. Wolf would be much more interesting, and its ending significant, if it asked whether Jordan had persuaded himself as well, in which case a tragic end or redemption could be predicated on the protagonist's success or failure to repurpose his talent, as in the recent American Hustle.

Wolf's most subtle scene could have closed a powerful peroration, but fails. At the end, Agent Denham, who has dogged Jordan for years, sits on the subway riding home, the very plebeian trip for which Jordan had mocked him. Denham, committed to justice and his job, looks up at a poor pair across the car: a man and his mother. The agent we presume remembers a story about which Jordan bragged, in which he the rich man playing philanthropist paid a boy's debt and his mother's medical bills. So when the agent looks at the boy and his mother, whom does he see: people Jordan fleeced or people he might have helped with his ill-gotten gains? Yet we know the agent doesn't think that because he never expressed any sympathy for Jordan or doubts about his FBI duties. What an interesting foil Denham might have been. Scorsese is quoted as considering whether Denham had doubts, but his context excludes the aforementioned and lacks internal evidence to support the speculation even though it comes from the director.

Scorsese ends with a line from Jordan bragging about how because he's rich he even bough himself a posh lifestyle in jail, glad he lives "somewhere where everything is for sale." Is this a dig at politicians? Citizens? Why is the script throwing this in now, with no preparation or room for development?

Ultimately, Wolf of Wall Street fails because it's badly plotted and it looks like Scorsese's done himself a disservice by hewing close to the real Jordan Belfort's book. It's easy to gloss over the movie's flaws because Wolf is so energetically styled and because its lack of proper resolution seems glibly to say that nothing changes and justice was not done, but it's really just incomplete. Let us recall how high the tragic bar has been raised by the Bard, whose twisting few sentences from the end of Richard III are worth more than the whole of Belfort's sorry inconsequential tale. Here is true ambition, pride, indignation, fear, recognition, and tragedy, in but a few words.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No-yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why-
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself!


  1. Even though he may not win, I just hope that Leo gets a nomination he so rightfully deserves. Good review Nick.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and your comment Dan, and I apologize for the delay in posting the comment: been sick and away from the blog all week! Yeah I've never been more impressed with DiCaprio, who really does demonstrate range here. I'm glad you in your review, which I enjoyed too, mentioned the terrific pacing: "Wolf" is a remarkably quick experience for a three hour movie, and it's editing is super smooth too. Unfortunately I agree that a lot of people will be put off by the runtime. I went a little negative, but it's sure worth watching as is all Scorsese.