The Wolf of Wall Street


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In “Hell on Earth: The Desecration & Resurrection of ‘The Devils’,” Father Gene Phillips S.J., a priest who consulted with the Legion of Decency, relates an anecdote on the looming censorship problems facing Ken Russell’s film and the fate of the movie’s notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence. Surprisingly, Phillips concludes, “The scene portrays blasphemy, it is not a blasphemous scene.” A similar dialogue has engulfed discussion on Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a movie that, according to Pamela McClintock of “The Hollywood Reporter,” initially faced an NC-17 rating from the MPAA until Scorsese agreed to snip some of the film’s most explicit imagery.

Some of the deeply divided arguments mounted against “The Wolf of Wall Street” make the same kinds of claims that were leveled at “The Devils.” In “The New Yorker,” David Denby concludes his excoriation by writing that the movie is “meant to be an exposé of disgusting, immoral, corrupt, obscene behavior, but it’s made in such an exultant style that it becomes an example of disgusting, obscene filmmaking.” At the other end of the spectrum, Sara Benincasa, writing for “Jezebel,” argues, “But here is a fun thing that is true: depiction of bad behavior does not constitute endorsement of said bad behavior.[italics hers]. Can Scorsese have his cake and eat it as well?

Almost expectedly, both Denby and Benincasa – and many other critics – invoke excess as a descriptive measure of the both the film’s content and Scorsese’s approach to staging that content. The “excess” invocation is so common, it can be sometimes easy to overlook the possibility that the very material identified as excessive is, cinematically speaking, integral, intrinsic, and constitutional not only to films like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but to all narrative features. Linda Williams has said it as well as anybody: “For if, it seems, sex, violence, and emotion are fundamental elements of the sensational effects of these three types of films [pornography, horror, and melodrama], the designation ‘gratuitous’ is itself gratuitous.”

As a plot, then, wretched excess and its attractive visual celebration is a both/and not an either/or proposition, allowing for a different kind of discussion to emerge in the examination of Jordan Belfort’s avaricious, rapacious appetite for consumption. Like “Unforgiven,” a movie that ruminates on the destructive, soul-eating futility of violence while building to a climax that depends on the thrilling spectacle of unleashed gunplay, “The Wolf of Wall Street” outmatches and outthinks Oliver Stone’s relentlessly quoted “Wall Street,” a title often cited for its own slippery status as part cautionary tale, part unscrupulous instruction manual.

Even with its almost three-hour running time, “The Wolf of Wall Street” could use a little more of Kyle Chandler’s smart FBI agent and additional insight into the impulses and inclinations of Margot Robbie’s Naomi. Scorsese, so identified with the close examinations of hypermasculine protagonists, has rarely been described as a filmmaker fully invested in the inner lives of the female characters populating his movies. Even so, the filmmaker has directed ten women to Oscar nominations. Two, Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and Cate Blanchett in “The Aviator,” won. Had a small amount of attention been diverted from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort to Robbie’s Naomi, Scorsese’s nomination record might have been further extended.

Several weeks following its debut, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” like so many of Scorsese’s best films, has an almost insidious way of staying in your head, maybe even making you feel a little sick to your stomach. Both Benincasa and Denby’s colleague Richard Brody put their fingers right on it: Scorsese, now 71 and one of the grand masters of the game, may very well be criticizing the aspirational fervor of American capitalism’s selfishness and ego by reminding the viewer that he or she would, given the chance, do largely as louche parvenu Jordan does.

Previous Post
Next Post
Comments are closed.