After seeing American Hustle last weekend I described it as an "epic Scorsesean farce" and suggested that David O. Russell might prove to have out-Scorsesed Martin Scorsese himself this year. To be fair to Scorsese, I ventured out this holiday afternoon, during what's expected to have been a calm before a storm, to stand in a line outside the local art house to see The Wolf of Wall Street. As it turned out, many of the people in line outside this neighborhood multiplex were there for Philomena -- you never know who'll show up -- and Wolf played to a much less full house than Hustle did on a less pleasant Sunday. The Scorsese film has gotten some bad word of mouth as well as some glowing reviews, and may prove the most divisive film of the holiday or Oscar season. You may have read a story about some old-fogey screenwriter heckling the great man after a Hollywood screening, while professional reviewers, grown impatient in the age of Peter Jackson, have complained about the film's length of almost three hours. But while Jackson may not be able to control himself, Wolf is purposefully excessive in setting up false endings only to have the hero press on irrepressibly, until he's finally repressed. By the end, you might describe Wolf itself as an epic Scorsesean farce, in a Marxist sense. If you think of his Nineties crime epics (Goodfellas, Casino) as tragedies, Wolf seems farcical alongside them. It marks the director's return to his classical mode and his great theme of the rise and fall of a corrupt order that works for a time, yet implodes due to the same uncontrollable desires that fueled its rise in the first place. But since Jordan Belfort's order isn't enforced by lethal force, and Belfort's Qualuude habit sometimes renders him a physical clown, Wolf ends up looking like a comic reprise of Scorsesean themes if not outright self-parody. It's often very funny but Scorsese sometimes undermines its comic potential. He doesn't trust Leonardo DiCaprio's physical comedy to carry the scene in which Belfort, reduced to "cerebral palsy mode" by industrial-strength Qualuudes, must crawl from a country-club lobby to his car. DiCaprio contorts himself quite impressively, but Scorsese feels compelled to add a voice-over when it shouldn't be needed, as if to underline his artistic signature. The standard Scorsesean narrative is erratic here as Belfort usually recounts his story in past tense but lapses into present tense in several scenes, while the director occasionally treats us to other character's voice-overs. Belfort also addresses the audience occasionally in the middle of scenes from his own career rather than from some retrospective point. All this may be a greater sign of some loss of creative discipline than the length of the film.
Wolf shares with Hustle a giddy amorality; it seems more a celebratory than a cautionary tale. Belfort is an earnest young stockbroker who loses his job when his company fails following the Black Monday of 1987. Looking for work, he stumbles upon a strip-mall "boiler room" where telemarketers hustle penny stocks for companies deemed unworthy of listings with Dow Jones. Impressed by the 50% commissions earned for penny stocks -- he earned a much smaller percentage on the Street -- Belfort soon starts his own firm and makes himself a Master of the Universe, cheating all the way. He's been taught by his mentor (Matthew McConaughey in a cameo) that he should indulge all his vices in order to be both aggressive and relaxed while selling. His cronies emulate him and a corporate bacchanal ensues for years, while the FBI and SEC grow suspicious about the company's shady deals. In true Scorsesean fashion, everything falls apart because the protagonists can't control themselves. The false ending I mentioned exemplifies this; Belfort has agreed to a deal with the SEC to quit the business with his fortune largely intact, but changes his mind in the middle of a sentimental farewell speech because surrendering would make him a hypocrite after years telling everyone not to take No for an answer. No one in this picture knows when to quit, and it shouldn't surprise us if audiences interpret this as Scorsese not knowing when to quit. I suspect that Wolf is a film that wants to exhaust its audience and make it feel glad to be rid of Belfort at last.
The director (and writer Terence Winter) may need to make Belfort wear out his welcome because they have genuine trouble making him out as the villain that, objectively speaking, he should be. More so than Bradley Cooper's selfishly ambitious Fed in American Hustle, Wolf's FBI nemesis (Kyle Chandler) comes across, probably unintentionally, as a killjoy. He's a likable enough character, and he gets sympathy for remaining an ill-paid subway commuter, but Scorsese and Winter never allow him to articulate why what Belfort's doing is wrong and why our protagonist deserves to go to jail. Perhaps they thought that would seem like preaching, and perhaps they thought Belfort's wickedness would be self-evident. You don't want to take stuff like that for granted in our time. What Wolf shares with Hustle is not so much literal amorality but a certain blind spot. In neither film are we shown how the protagonists' schemes and scams hurt people. There's no suggestion that people are losing their life savings or otherwise ruining their lives by getting suckered by these films' con artists and hucksters. Rather, both films see their protagonists as rags-to-riches antiheroes, Scorsese apparently seconding Russell's argument that "everyone hustles to survive" and the implicit corollary that everyone is fair game. Both films, if not both directors, seem alienated from bourgeois morality, which in this case isn't necessarily a pejorative. Scorsese has consistently offered an alternative to the bourgeois myth of success. As many bourgeois moralists have said, with varying degrees of sincerity, the key to success -- to rising from rags to riches -- is self-denial, the deferral of gratification. In Wolf, the McConaughey character tells Belfort that he must not defer gratification; the mentor makes a point of masturbating several times a day to keep sharp and clear. In the classical Scorsese universe, the key to success is pursuing gratification without restraint, to get what you want as soon as you can by any means necessary. Those who defer gratification are the schnooks who drive Pintos or ride the subway to work -- and our final shot of the FBI man still riding the subway seems intended to question whether it benefited anyone to prosecute Belfort. I felt more moral qualms about this approach after Wolf than I did after Hustle, but that doesn't mean Wolf is the worse film. It may just have been a cumulative effect after seeing the two so close together.
Wolf is minor Scorsese, however. There's a sense about it of Scorsese trying to prove to the world, or to himself, that he's still Martin Scorsese after all these years. With that comes a very deliberate sowing of wild oats and a relentless parade of nudity and drug humor, kind of like Kubrick at a like age staging orgies in Eyes Wide Shut. While it's consistently funny to see DiCaprio debase himself -- and to mock Titanic in an otherwise utterly gratuitous sea-disaster scene -- a little of Jonah Hill as Belfort's neighbor turned business partner and best friend goes a long, long way. I haven't seen much of Hill (and definitely wasn't impressed with him in Django Unchained) but he seems like another of today's gross exhibitionists who pass for comedians without being especially funny.And if DiCaprio is game -- and it helps that he looks more like a young Howard Hughes now than he did during The Aviator -- when he gets especially shrill in arguments with his wives I couldn't help imagining Ray Liotta in his place and finding the two interchangeable. Still, Wolf is funny often enough that I could stand its running time fairly easily. And lest I seem a killjoy myself for criticizing the amorality of this and American Hustle above, lets remember to cut comedy some slack. Comedy is often a fantasy of transgression, thrilling us as the comedians get away with things that we normally can't, or never get a chance to, and probably never should, until the punch line brings them back down to earth. In that sense, Wolf is a more comic film than Hustle, since Belfort actually falls after rising. And in that same sense, not only Wolf but Goodfellas and Casino are comedies -- and Wolf of Wall Street is definitely the funniest of the three.