"Lower than pond scum": debating The Wolf of Wall Street

When it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street, my wife and I disagree. We noticed this morning, that when it came to critical responses, B clearly favored Dana Stevens' perspective: "The story’s relentless, unvarying rhythm—malfeasance, consumption, more malfeasance, more consumption—leaves the audience drained and annoyed." In my male crass way, I tend to favor Richard Brody's more generous view: "an exuberant, hyper-energized riot. It’s like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn’t have wanted it a minute shorter."

B: You're already condemning the movie by saying you are male and crass. You really want to say that?

FD: (laughing) [We sit in an IHOP, waiting on breakfast.]

B: I think it's a false dichotomy to base the critical responses on gender. After all, everyone was dehumanized in The Wolf of Wall Street, not just women. Children were like ornaments.  The smaller you were, the less you mattered. Women were mostly orifices.

FD: That's way harsh, Tai.

B: You are referencing Brittany Murphy in Clueless (1995) and she's dead.

FD: I would like to just point out that Wolf is just more fun than American Hustle, which, in contrast, is a comparatively safe movie. Even as I enjoyed all of the 1970's hairstyles, I still miss the much more radical politics of David O. Russell's Three Kings (1999). Like Silver Linings Playbook (2102), American Hustle enhances the plot line of a traditional genre film (such as, say, The Sting (1973)) with unfettered high level acting, but the overall experience seems fundamentally tame in ways that The Wolf of Wall Street isn't.

B: Well, if all you want is spectacle without a nuanced story with any sympathetic characterization, then maybe you're right, but personally, I prefer movies where the motives behind people's actions are intricate and not always pleasure-oriented. To me, Wolf was bereft of humanity. When the only motivation is greed, I don't care about what happens, because it's a no-brainer. There's no surprise. Even in Shame, Fassbinder's character, a sex addict, is still recognizably human. The Wolf is like a world of replicants. That's why when Dana Stevens says it repetitive, that's because it's all Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) can do. I'm really pissed off that Scorsese did nothing to underscore the millions of dollars that Belfort defrauded from people, the lives that were ruined--all of that was swept under the rug just because that's just not fun. The worst thing that Jordan does in the movie is wreck a car, and even that's seen as amusing.

FD: Let me reply. We can all agree that Jordan is ethically reprehensible, but can't we vicariously enjoy the excesses of his lifestyle just as we enjoy that of Jay Gatsby or Ray Liotta's character, Henry Hill, in Goodfellas (1990)?  I see Wolf as being fundamentally punk in its attitude towards its subject matter, and both Goodfellas and Wolf move towards punk music in the soundtrack to reflect that.

B: In Goodfellas, which I have recently rewatched, we get a backstory for Henry Hill and the mob framework for his actions. We get sympathetic characters in the form of his wife, his character's mother. Even the girlfriend is sympathetic, because we understand the motivations behind what they do. And we see the negative aspects of their lifestyle. There's a downside as well as an upside. And Henry is likable because we understand about who he is. It's not just about greed. His characterization and Liotta's acting is much more nuanced, and he's juxtaposed with people who are both better and worse than he is. In Wolf, everybody is despicable. Everybody can be bought. There's no love for anybody. Everybody is a sucker, expendable.

FD: You are generalizing a lot. I found it interesting how often Scorsese included scenes in which Jordan holds forth in front of a crowd, and the last shot is of an audience, as if he meant to include the spectators in the theater as part of the same duped group. But isn't American Hustle also about how we all hustle ourselves, about how the tendency to dupe each other is a fundamental part of the American dream?

B: Yes. That is one of the dreams of American Hustle, but unlike in the case of Wolf, we care about how these characters reinvent themselves in order to avoid crashing and burning. These are people who think on their feet, who understand and empathize. Now granted, they sometimes use that to their advantage, but they are more fundamentally human. For example, when Christian Bale's character Irving Rosenfeld joins the Mayor Carmine's (Jeremy Renner) party and Carmine gives him a microwave, Irving could have easily used Carmine to get what he needed, but instead he goes to Carmine and apologizes. In spite of the fact that he's a con artist. Irving has a Hemingwayesque code of honor and he's man enough to risk getting the shit kicked out of him to apologize. Irving understands that he did Carmine wrong. Even Jennifer Lawrence's Roselyn, given how crazy she is, still has her inability to function without her child and her jealous reaction to Sydney (Amy Adams) entering the room. All of these things are recognizably human. They have a sense of what is going too far. The characters in Wolf have no moral compass of any sort, either from some external source (like a religion), or one of their own making. And that's too easy. Talk about movies that make men look bad. This movie makes all men who like it look like schmucks or dickheads.

FD: But isn't your problem fundamentally with Jordan's point of view, and aren't we supposedly able to look beyond that?

B: Scorsese doesn't let us look beyond it. It's like being repetitively hit over the head with a large mallet. It's a one-trick movie. I only need to be hit over the head one time. Even in the meticulous way Irving works on his comb-over is much more subtle than anything in Wolf.

FD: Who knows if your appalled reaction is to Scorsese pushing the envelope . . . ?

B: He dehumanizes everybody. How can dehumanizing ever be funny? Is Hitler funny? Is 200 years of racism amusing? That's not even counting sexism.

FD: Yes, your sense of outrage may be a key aspect of why the movie will do well both critically and commercially. Scorsese in his way fits right in with the cynical devil-may-care attention-matters-the-most zeitgeist of Miley Cyrus. In order for anything to break through the fuzz of the media clatter, it must shock, and your reaction seems to suit that. Perhaps that's what Scorsese intended.

B: As we sit here intellectualizing this movie, there are tens and thousands of white men who are incapable of intellectualizing anything, and all they see is "I want my own whore to snort cocaine off of." It is Scorsese cynically playing to the masses, and those viewers who believe that the dehumanizing is okay, that I object to.

FD: Good point.

B: If everybody could intellectualize it, then it would be fine. Take something like Django Unchained. Tarantino takes on a hateful subject, but there is still nuanced characterization. So people get their say. You get to look at multiple points of view, and any viewer can decide on their own interpretation. But we don't get that prism in Wolf. It's a harsh narrow ray of light, and you can't see beyond it. Something like Boogie Nights (1997), which concerns the porn industry, has lots of different back stories, and perspectives. And it's not that every bad guy has to be punished. We have to know under what basis they operate. And it has to be more than greed, because it's not very interesting. Wolf is constructed to glorify greed, dehumanization, sexism, classism, racism, in fact anyone who is not a traditional white man. Why should I like that?