Cinema

Fists of cash, hookers and a candle in your bum palls after a while

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

The Wolf of Wall Street

18, Nationwide

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street will set the cat among the pigeons as a number of films do. 12 Years A Slave set the cat among the pigeons with some critics claiming it was ‘torture porn’ and other people taking to the blah-blah-blah and jabber-jabber-jabber of the Twittersphere to say they had no intention of seeing anything ‘so harrowing’. (Luckily for them, I plan to open shortly a specialised cinema, The Comfort-Zone Cinema, possibly on the Finchley Road, which will never show anything upsetting, and Hello, Dolly! every other Tuesday.)

This time out, the blah-blah jabber-jabber will, I imagine, take the following form: does Wolf exult in the excesses it intended to satirise? Does it get off on its own virulent misogyny rather than indict it? Why aren’t the swindled victims portrayed? And, hopefully: can you really hire a midget in a Velcro hat to throw at a giant dartboard? (I have a milestone birthday coming up and would like to lay on some kind of unusual entertainment, so am seriously interested.) However, it may not be worth getting het up about any of that, if only because this is such a monotonous, repetitive piece of work.

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There are spectacular set pieces. There are the Scorsese money shots. There are gloriously funny moments. Leonardo DiCaprio is sublime, if rather exaggeratedly manic, and Matthew McConaughey, who only appears briefly, is electrifying. (Best scene ever.) But it’s also three hours of the same events, over and over. Make a ton of money, get totally whacked on drugs, have sex with hookers. Make a ton of money, get totally whacked on drugs, have sex with hookers. And sometimes, for variety: make a ton of money, get totally whacked on drugs, buy a yacht, buy a helicopter, have the hooker stand a candle in your bum. Sounds riotous, I know — fists of cash, yachts and a candle in your bum! — but, trust me, it palls after a while.


The film is based on the bestselling memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort, the celebrated fraudster of the 1990s, who prided himself on being able to sell anything and cheated investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars before the FBI brought him down. It opens when Belfort is at his peak, has set up his own Wall Street brokerage firm, and is entertaining his employees with some midget-throwing. (How much would it cost, do we think?) Belfort comes right at us, straight into our faces, narrating directly to camera. ‘My name is Jordan Belfort,’ he says, ‘and the year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.’

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Belfort has worked his way up the food chain, duping the poor with ‘penny stocks’, whatever they are, before turning his attention to the rich. His number two is Donny (Jonah Hill, with phosphorescent teeth, but still very much Jonah Hill), whom he met in a diner. He had a wife, a hairdresser, but he ditches her for the ravishingly pouty Margot Robbie, who plays his second wife, Naomi. ‘She was once in a Miller Lite commercial,’ he informs us, proudly. Jordan and Donny and their inner circle sell dud stocks for fortunes, then do vodka and champagne and cocaine and morphine and Valium and Quaaludes (their favourite) and next it’s the frenzied sex. There are orgies on planes and yachts and on the trading floor with hookers who are classy ($300), hookers who are not so classy ($200), and hookers who are so ‘scuzzy’ you have to get a penicillin shot the next day. (Man’s inhumanity to woman seems endless.) There are consequences — fights, crash-landings, Naomi’s wrath, wax in strange places — but nothing which prevents them, alas, from picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and starting all over again.

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As the engine of the film keeps replaying itself, and getting nowhere in particular, one hangs on in there for those set pieces and gloriously dark funny moments: Jordan taking super-strong Lemmon ludes, drooling, unable to stand and trying to get into his car with a foot (DiCaprio proves himself a marvellous physical actor in this scene, by the way); Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father, who is mad as hell except when he answers the phone, and talks nicely in a British accent (for some reason); and Matthew McConaughey, who appears at the beginning, as Belfort’s mentor, and who is not just truly electrifying as The World’s Creepiest Broker, but also sets the tone with his advice. ‘Remember,’ he tells Belfort, ‘you are not creating anything.’

And it doesn’t feel as if this has created much of anything either. No character makes any kind of journey, because no character is capable of making any kind of journey. Belfort is ultimately brought down, which is satisfying, but he never learns anything. He has no self-awareness and would, I’m betting, do it all again tomorrow, if he could. (Belfort is currently a motivational speaker and cites Gordon Gekko as his hero, just so you know.) So there is no psychological insight, no moral insight, just no insight, full stop. And it palls after a while.

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Show comments
  • masaccio68

    In real life, of course, one day the bankers wake up and realize what a mess they’ve made and spend the rest of their lives and fortunes trying to make amends.

    • Treebrain

      In the way that ‘robber barons’, medieval warlords or the modern politicians should?

  • rob232

    Your complaint from what I understand is that the movie is about superficial people with wrong values. That’s because the film is a true story about people at the top. The are trying to get a message across
    You might prefer one about a banker who gives all his money to the poor and then works in a leper colony. Our lives would be very different if the people who manage us were like that.

    • commenteer

      No, rob232, the complaint is that the movie is a bore. Having sat through it last week, it’s a conclusion with which I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Treebrain

    Deborah Ross,

    Did you ever read the wonderful Jewish Journal article written by Rob Eshman;

    ‘‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish problem’?

    which raises an issue that you totally ignore in your review of the film and mention of Jordan Belfort, namely that he was Jewish?

    The Eshman article addresses this fact, and most especially, why this is directly relevant to any revue of the film or discussion of the actions of the man himself.

    What a shame you remain unaware of these elements.

  • Eddie

    So this film upsets and offends you, so you hate it, but 12 years a slave upsets you, and you love it?
    Just listening on the radio to a great review of this movie – from a male DJ – which makes me suspect that this is a film that will appeal to boys not girls, like The Sopranos and The Godfather.
    Maybe you should open a cinema that merely shows costume dramas and Call the Midwife and other flicks which satisfy your craving for emotional manipulation?

    • sonicjrjr14 .

      Man you sound like an asshole!

  • anon

    Broadly true, though I think there was something deeper (that could have been developed more) in Jordan’s “this is America” speeches to his brokers, in his claims here almost to moral virtue, in the raw animal nature of the dealing room.

    • Stanislas Blum

      You nailed it Anon

  • pearlsandoysters

    There’re a couple of good films on the subject of “greed is good” or not so good actually. One is “Flawless” which gives a totally different take on moral issues.
    Initially, I wanted to see this “Wolf from the Wall Street”, yet now I’ve come to conclusion that this spectacle is for the feeble-minded individuals.

    • Stanislas Blum

      Humble variation (though our views probably have a lot more in common): it is a spectacle for individuals who are strong enough to feel contempt towards feeble-minded characters.
      This movie truly is a masterpiece, not the least because it departs from this “feeble-minded” stereotypical habit poisoning hollywood, which consists in presenting waltdisney-like cases of black and white morality where a viewer’s intelligence is never called-upon… I say this because it cannot be that hard to imagine some viewers secretly dying to get to Wall Street after having watched The Wolf; in a deeply materialistic society like the USA, this would unfortunately be, after all, quite coherent.
      Reality is often very far from straight-forward, and getting people used to obvious evils is to encourage their blindness towards less obvious, though often much more powerful ones.

  • Ah, how interesting to see that the term that occurred spontaneously to me, ‘torture porn’ (which I’m happy to say I’ve never seen, myself) is the one that also occurred to the reviewer and critic James Bowman:

    “I suppose you have to be at least in advanced middle age to feel this obscure sense of shame at violating someone else’s privacy in watching such scenes. As I was coming out of Steve McQueen’s unrelentingly grim movie version of 12 Years a Slave, I overheard an old man say to his wife: “I really wish I hadn’t seen that movie.” When she asked why, he replied: “Too morbid.” It’s not quite the right word to describe what struck me as more like torture-porn, but it may have been a reversion to the original meaning of “morbid” and equivalent to saying that the movie made him feel sick, as it did me. Yet it must be more than most critics’ jobs are worth to wonder if, as the movie seems to suggest, ante-bellum Southern planters really spent their lives alternately praying and figuring out (with Scriptural sanction) new ways to make their slaves’ lives miserable. Any such doubt would automatically count as closing one’s eyes to the truth of slavery”.*

    Ross’s snideness at those who neither want nor need to be brutalized by movies is misplaced.

    *JamesBowman.net

  • Stanislas Blum

    We can at last confirm an artist’s talent by noticing, at the fated
    price of one’s cerebral implosion, how widely misunderstood he is – not
    only among those diverted herds excessively proud of their nauseating
    First Amendment, but even by the self-righteous critiques whose elitist
    choice of words brilliantly fails to hide an indigent choice of
    thoughts… Yes, sadly enough, Scorcese’s grand mistake was to compose a
    masterpiece far too subtle for an American audience.
    Let’s cut a
    long (yet not as “excessively long” as most commentators foolishly
    parroted) story short : what The Wolf of Wall Street tries to portray is
    a society where business has literally taken the ascendancy of a new
    Church.
    Idiots -not you, everyone else- will probably read it as a
    hyperbolic metaphor, but we shall not be trumped : Stratton is a
    religious sanctuary where weak-minded sectarians can feverishly praise
    their spiritual leader Belfort.
    With such a reading, obvious
    examples start to abound (mystical rituals, regular services,
    community-binding songs,…) in what perhaps was too subtle at first;
    and surely the very last scene, where a jaw-dropping army of buffoon
    sales folks cannot get enough of their priest’s aura will convince the
    most recalcitrant. Marvel at the profound irony behind numbed crowds,
    who otherwise would probably sport their ‘atheism’ with great pride,
    acting unconsciously like the most fervent believers… and we are
    desperately left to wonder whether it does not, after all, betray a
    deeper need in the human psyche as a whole.

    It is simply wrong to describe the story
    as ‘amoral’, since everything in there rightly illustrates the
    neo-liberal ideology at its purest, with all its tasteless values and
    childish codes of behaviour brought to their most religious, most
    coherent finality. When a critique points out the lack of an obvious
    moral message (you know, the usual hollywood Manichaean treat to make
    sure lazy viewers don’t have to think too much on their own), he or she
    simply is too overwhelmed, too absorbed already by an ideology that can
    therefore no longer be recognized. Concretely speaking, if the
    vulgarity, the insipid obscenity and meaningless life-forms portrayed in
    The Wolf were not obviously contemptible to you, wake up. Scorcese’s
    liability ends where yours begins.

    Roland Barthes would have smiled like a bored prophet.

    To
    blame it as “morally shortcoming” or assess it as “not particularly
    thoughtful” tragically proves the movie’s point, along with a ‘not
    particularly glorious’ example of self-projection

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