Destroy All Monsters: Thinking Better Of The Wolves

Matt Brown, Columnist

I still don't know exactly where to come down on The Wolf of Wall Street. In the first part I don't think it's a particularly great movie, though of course being a Martin Scorsese picture, it's a hell of a lot better than most.

Is it just warmed-over Goodfellas (or rather, warmed-over Casino, which was warmed-over Goodfellas)? I don't know, but Wolf does feel repetitive. The scenes are new (the extended sequence of a Quaalude-paralyzed Jordan trying to get into his Lamborghini like an angry puppet with its puppeteer on a smoke break is among the funniest things I've seen all year), but the rhythm is the same.

(For alternate takes on the film, see Peter Martin's review and Michele Galgana's feature.)

We could deduct a lot, I suppose, from the fact that in the Scorsese canon, the wolves of Wall Street have replaced gangsters in his rogues' gallery; Wolf even underlines the point by having Jordan, in the first 10 or 15 minutes, ape Ray Liotta's memorable line from the opening of Goodfellas by saying "All my life, I always wanted to be rich." That's the crux of the thing, isn't it -- all the gangsters ever wanted, and all Jordan and his idiot friends want too. They're looking for the shortcut around, to an unimaginably decadent lifestyle.

Plus, of course, the omnipresent license to be a dick, which maybe is more to the point anyway. Money might be the goal, but the lifestyle is about not having to give a fuck. Per the predictable rise-and-fall metrics of this sort of movie, they do indeed get there; and then it all goes to hell.

Wolf is decadent in its efforts. It's a three-hour movie that drips by at a snail's pace because its denizens' shenanigans, while spirited and inventive at times, are telegraphed from frame one. The most interesting (or at least unusual) thing about Wolf, from a Scorsese perspective, is the sheer quantity of sex.

Scorsese has traditionally adopted a less-is-more approach to onscreen sexual excess, and a no-fucking-way approach to actual, emotion-driven love scenes. Here, though, he opens an early sequence with a confusing shot of a pair of flesh-coloured globes which, after a moment or two, resolve into the twin ass cheeks of a hooker in the "face down, ass up" position, while Jordan either does lines of coke out of her asshole, or drinks from her vagina with a straw, or something. I don't remember. Honestly, it was a lot of sex.

It got a bit muddled in my head after a while, having been force-fed a ceaseless three-hour parade of the 1990s gold standard of Playboy-quality tits, ass, and, more often than not, freshly-waxed pussy. Jordan and his father's one true heart-to-heart in the film concerns, in part, the relative merits of a bald pubis vs. the pleasures of good old-fashioned pubic hair.

Wolf is as obsessed with sex as Jordan and his friends are, and not, I think, even making that much of a point about it. The sex is sort of just "there," a glamourous adornment for the story, like the cars in the Fast franchise or any single shot of a woman in a Michael Bay film. Sometimes porn is just porn, and as voyeurism and gazing goes in the movies, Wolf feels a lot like having its cake and eating it too.

The film might even be aware of it, too: when Jordan's right-hand man and all-around jerk-off Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) first lays eyes on Jordan's spectacular soon-to-be second wife (Margot Robbie), he literally pulls his prick out of his pants and starts beating off right in front of her. He's stoned at the time, but the movie doesn't split hairs on this; everyone's stoned all the time. Hill's floppy rubber dickie (Hill has had a big year with rubber dicks) is a stand-in for the hot-wired sexual urges of the whole audience's worth of voyeurs. Just wait till you get this on Netflix, fellas.

wolf-of-wall-street-poster-jp-300.jpgThe question of the movie's thematic intent has been raised repeatedly since its release, and rightly so; there are a lot of real-world tangents and consequences that the movie involves (for example, the metric ton of money the real Jordan Belfort is going to make as a direct, and indirect, result of this exposure).

Say we are to give Scorsese and DiCaprio the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they created The Wolf of Wall Street as a full-on critique of every single element of a person like Jordan Belfort and the society that created him. The film is not without its protracted portion of comeuppance, as I've said, though even here, the real-life consequences of Jordan's actions are shown to be so frivolous that they're little more than a hearty indictment of just how insane the United States' treatment of its financial criminals has been, and remains. Fair point.

So let's continue to presume the best of intentions from the filmmakers, who wanted to use Belfort's story to expose and critique the toxic masculinity and systemic malfeasance that creates Jordan Belforts and then lets them retire on self-help book revenue. Here, at least, the sexual excess makes a kind of relevant thematic point, Wolf's women turned into literal pornography in lieu of being seen or treated as actual humans by any of the film's characters (or filmmakers).

Some critics have even praised Wolf's unwillingness to level a moral gaze upon Jordan and his gang, but I fear the Scarface problem here. Playing to a white liberal middle-class audience, The Wolf of Wall Street might indeed be read as satire. Playing to an audience who has no idea it's satire and wouldn't give much of a fuck if they did, Wolf, like Scarface, like Goodfellas, like the other Wall Street, is a 3-hour infomercial for 1-888-CRIME-PAYS.

The problem with issuing a send-up of toxic masculinity is how quickly and completely it can be interpreted as the inverse by the very toxic males it is describing. As such, The Wolf of Wall Street is just another alpha male propaganda piece in a pop culture that is heartily over-saturated with them. (Again: we already have Michael Bay. Who at least had the unhypocritical clarity of mind to call his film Pain and Gain.)

Even the "disasters" that befall Jordan Belfort on his way down seem more like the gags from a Farrelly Brothers movie than actual rejoinders to his hellish lifestyle. I already called the Quaalude car scene one of the funniest of the year; but there's also the Grand Guignol sinking of Jordan's yacht, or Donnie pissing on various subpoenas and kicking the urine bucket at his employees, or any number of other enviable "rich people problems" right down to, and including, Jordan's 22-month prison sentence in a minimum-security facility, where - horrors! - he has to play tennis.

wolf-of-wall-street-photo-03-350.jpgJust about the worst thing that happens to Jordan in the whole movie, really, is a toss-up between the scene where his trophy wife plays cock-tease for him in a short skirt with no panties, and the scene where a dominatrix stuffs a lit candle up his bum and refuses to acknowledge his safe word.

These scenes are also, notably, the only two times that a woman, even temporarily, gets the better of our proud piece of walking testosterone. And they don't last long.

A fellow critic recently described one of the merits of 12 Years a Slave as its having been "responsibly directed." That thought has been on my mind of late. There's an outer ring of artistic responsibility that a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street ignores, which is to consider, while not bowing to, the ways in which the work might or might not be interpreted.

For all its drudgery, the word that best describes Wolf's approach to its debauchery is "gleeful." Perhaps the filmmakers really did approach the story with a "holy crap, look what this guy did!" mentality and let the chips fall where they may, but in the era in which the film has been released, with many of its criminals paying no real price for their crimes, and with the shadow of a much harsher economic reality dividing the United States into two vastly unequal halves, The Wolf of Wall Street seems crass, unconsidered, and brutish. Just like Jordan himself.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

Around the Internet:
  • nfrsbmschmck

    There are so many moments of this film (the head shaving scene, the last sex scene, the kidnapping scene, etc.) that really show us what to think of both Jordan and the world he lives in. This is not glorifying this man at all and if you think so, you weren't paying attention. To chastise Scorsese for not being a responsible filmmaker is absurd. This movie wasn't great, but critique it on what it actually did wrong, not on what some people might misinterpret. Scorsese et al. made their intentions subtly explicit and I do not see the need for censorship because an audience is too lazy or stupid too notice.

  • Dave Baxter

    He did critique the movie on what it did "wrong": the approach to the material was arguably "crass, unconsidered, and brutish". That isn't arguing what wasn't there, that's arguing why what WAS there was ill-considered. It also isn't censorship to argue that the tone of a movie was a bad choice.

  • nfrsbmschmck

    You only quoted the second part of the quote. Crass, unconsidered, and brutish are not flaws with the film but—as Matt Brown is inarticulately arguing—flaws with the filmmaking. This whole article is trying to say that Scorsese should reconsider how he makes his films because some people might not think hard enough to discover the true nature of his intention. But as I pointed out, there are a number of scenes that cut through the gleeful debauchery and truly make us question a lot about both Jordan as well as what it means to succeed financially in this country—just as Spring Breakers took so colorfully and entrancingly took us into the miserable world of spring break culture. So yes, by asking that Scorsese edit is craft in order to fall in line with the viewpoints of others, Matt is asking for censorship. Scorsese is a very responsible filmmaker being criticized by a very large and irresponsible audience.

  • Dave Baxter

    "You only quoted the second part of the quote. Crass, unconsidered, and brutish are not flaws with the film but—as Matt Brown is inarticulately arguing—flaws with the filmmaking."

    Yes, I said as much: I said "the approach to the material" (i.e. the filmmaking) "was arguably 'crass, unconsidered, and brutish'".

    Nowhere in Matt's article is there a call for Scorsese to reconsider his entire film oeuvre, only a critique as it pertains to the example of this one film, and put into context of Scorsese's legacy. And I would definitely include Spring Breakers on any list of films whose subject matter was disowned by the filmmaker in terms of point or purpose: the amoralness of the approach can allow for any reading, but equally marks a distinct disconnect between filmmaker and final product. This is not by default a poor choice - notably concerning politically charged subject matter wherein the public finds itself on balance divided it can be best to show dramatics without any attempt to take sides (plenty of critical praise for certain films have marked when a film "refuses to take sides", etc. as a positive thing).

    But for WOLF, and I'd argue for Breakers as well, the approach felt less like "not taking sides" then a "gleeful" (Matt's word seems best) romp through the murky waters. But "gleeful" is not ambivalent. It's not detached. It takes a side that, I would guess, the filmmakers in both cases are not meaning to take. The fact that we can give Scorsese or Korine the benefit of the doubt in no way lessens the essence of the critique.

    And a negative critique is never censorship - ever. It's free goddamned speech and everyone and anyone can speak it freely. Saying you found something troubling in a film is just that: it is not a call to "edit" (your word choice, neither Matt's nor mine). No one is calling for an "Edit" of the existing movie. WOLF has been made, for better or for worse, there's no changing that and "Editing" the film would be inane. This is simply an opinion that may or may not influence the filmmaker or film culture in general, and if it did, it would be indistinguishable from any of the other influences that drift through film culture at any given time. Scorsese's artistic intent does not exist in a vacuum, and never has. If he's influenced, then it's natural. If he's not, then that's natural, too. No one is pulling a McCarthy and exerting political/legal influence on anyone. Give me a break.

  • hernan_n

    Some Directors are like bands - they put out a few amazing albums, then precede to put out more of the same/but never as good.

  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    First sentence is the one that resonates with me most. I've seen WOLF twice and I STILL don't know where I come down on it.

    The two things I'm pretty sure of are:

    -- there's a potentially amazing, hyper-kinetic 2:15 movie begging to come out of those three hours

    -- whoever wrote the review I read where they felt the movie was a critique saying the only way in America for a non-Choate-Yale-WASP to succeed massively in America is at-or-over the lines of legality was stretching a little for their thesis.

    I think Galgana is on the road to something, even if I think she misses the mark by a little. WOLF isn't a horror film any more than SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or A FACE IN THE CROWD is a horror film. But they are all about sociopaths and the horrible thing, to me, is that we live in a world led and run by sociopaths.

    Lord Acton hit upon it over a century ago when, in a discourse railing against the growing doctrine of papal infallibility, he wrote to Mandell Creighton:

    "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it."

    Whether it is the Oval Office, the Vatican or -- in WOLF's case and with its ilk -- the boardroom, we live in a time where the office sanctifies the holder and the only men and women clamoring for those stations are the ones who believe in that.

    WOLF's denizens believe that and, given the potential for their lifestyle to resonate with viewers much more than the horror of the moral vacuum those characters live in to achieve said lifestyle, maybe WE are in the horror movie Izzy is writing about.

  • Windemere

    So... Scorsese should have made a movie that made it clear that he really, really, really doesn't like Jordan Belfort? Why? So that the audience could feel that they are morally upstanding people because they really, really, really agree with Scorsese?And that way they could have left the movie theatre sedated and proud, with a sense that the system somehow works, since all the morally upstanding people have taken a stand.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    I don't give a constipated crap whether Scorsese "likes" Belfort or not, but the movie disappoints because it never --- once --- shows any of the consequences of the douchebag's mess-making on real people. We're told, "Oh, so what --- they were all rich assholes, too," but, as a wage-slave living with a flaccid salary, in great part due to the trickle-down of their antics, I'm not all that interested in Alpha Male hard-ons.

  • Dave Baxter

    "Hate" isn't the point, especially since there would be little the filmmakers could do given that nothing all that horrible ever does befall Jordan, so where to insert the "hate" or the concept that the system works? In fact, Jordan's story quite succinctly points out that the system doesn't "work", at least not the way we imagine it does - it works for sociopaths, even if they have to fall occasionally in-between rises. But the tone of the film was a definite choice - to go for a gleeful/joyous romp to show how cuh-ray-zee being a sociopaths asshat can be without exploring additional tones, for example why does Jordan never come across explicitly as sinister, or dangerous, and why is there so little shown as to Jordan's effect on others? Instead, the approach is that life is something that rams into Jordan, and he sucks it up and spits it out in his cuh-ray-zee way, with the side characters yet more "things" that bump into him and careen away into the ether. But rarely is there a sense of the reverse: that Jordan is something that hits and damages life around him. That's a very conscious decision on the filmmakers part. And it's worth noting.

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