The Wolf of Wall Street

Some kind of fevered masturbatory fantasy rather than something with anything of value to say

Some kind of fevered masturbatory fantasy rather than something with anything of value to say

The greatest opening line to a movie comes from Goodfellas:

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster

It sets the scene, it draws you into the journey of how Henry Hill became a gangster and then how it destroyed him. The opening line to The Wolf of Wall Street might as well be “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be rich”. It’s only a small change but it makes the world of difference. Martin Scorsese seemingly wants to do for Wall Street bankers what he did for the Mafia by filming the story of Jordan Belfort, a self-made Wall Street multi-millionaire who rode the wave all the way to the top and then couldn’t let go, destroying himself in the process. Only he’s not quite as destroyed as many of us might hope.

The film is problematic in many ways, but the first thing to say is that Wolf is a very funny film. Funnier than anything Scorsese has done for some time, and certainly the funniest performance of Di Caprio’s career, including some brilliant physical comedy, something of which I didn’t think him capable. Also, at three hours long, the film does not feel anywhere near as blaoted as one might fear. It rips along at a rare old pace and doesn’t really give you a chance to draw breath. But all of that leads to the however…

However, if Goodfellas is the equivalent of a big fat juicy steak meal (says the vegetarian), something that leaves you full and satisfied, Wolf is something else entirely. It’s full of empty calories. It’ll make you feel sick, it’ll make you fat, it’ll do nothing good for you. Here’s the thing. The film depicts the debauchery that was (is?) common-place amongst Wall Street traders. It is full of sex and drugs and drink and wasted money. It is life turned up not to 11 but 12. It is the thing we (hopefully) would hate to become were we living in a world of unlimited resources.

The better poster. The one that has some art behind it. Less representative of the film though, given it has some art about it.

The better poster. The one that has some art behind it. Less representative of the film though, given it has some art about it.

But the problem is that the film isn’t just depicting these things, it is these things.

The film is packed with nudity but it crosses the line between artistic merit and pornographic excess. Is there a justification for the lengths it goes to? I can’t see one. Likewise, there’s no equality. There’s a difference between portraying misogyny and being misogynistic and The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line into the latter category. The women are treated pretty abysmally throughout and, ultimately, it comes across as leering and masturbatory. At times one can’t help visualising the other side of the camera as a 71 year old man asks a bunch of naked 20-somethings to do his bidding and it’s not exactly comfortable. This may be a representation of the behaviour that carried on with these people but we got that message in the first half hour. The constant repetition is unnecessary – the very definition of pornography, no? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-nudity in films and neither am I anti-pornography per se, but in this context it is unnecessary and uncomfortable. There needs to be some kind of authorial voice or something.

So The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that was enjoyable, though bloated, but the longer you reflect on it the worse it becomes. A leering and seedy exercise that unfortunately bears a resemblance to the worst of Michael Bay’s “fucking the camera” extremes.

D+

Film Length: 2 hours 59 minutes – Feels like: 2 hours 30 minutes

The Great Gatsby

the_great_gatsby

I had not read The Great Gatsby before I saw the film, despite its reputation as possibly THE great American novel. The early reviews of the film had almost put me off seeing it purely on the basis that it might give away the plot points while delivering none of the satisfaction, thus ruining the book. With that in mind, let’s get the verdict out of the way right up front. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is almost as dumb, empty, dull and needlessly shiny as a Transformer’s movie. I’ll add a caveat – in my opinion. Walking out of the film it seemed I was the only one who felt this way, with the gaggle around me all having enjoyed it, including my other half. They are wrong though. Let me explain why.

The novel is purportedly about the emptiness of wealth, how it lacks meaning, how love is more important. It is also about the passage of time. Time doesn’t stand still. Emotions you held, connections you made, do not last forever, and we must all move with the times. It is about the class system, about coming from money as opposed to becoming money, the gentry versus the nouveau riche.

On the surface, all of this is present in the film, but that’s the problem, on the surface. There is nothing underneath. While the book may present the emptiness of wealth, the film is obsessed by what money can buy and what fun can be had if only you have the money to pay for it – cars, women, alcohol. Far from emptiness, the film suggests that this is what we should strive for.

The characters are paper thin, always saying exactly what they mean with nothing left to read between the lines. The actors do what they can but are ultimately left floundering. Nobody is presented as likeable. I don’t think anyone does anything nice towards another human being at any point during the course of the action. Relationships between characters are established because we are told about their feelings – we are rarely shown actions which demonstrate their emotions. Clear cases of tell don’t show.

But that’s not to say the film shows nothing. I think much of the praise the film has garnered (from those exiting around me) stems from the various set pieces. It’s true that the parties, which are gloriously designed with sumptuous Busby Berkley-style dances, are a marvel to look at and for those easily entertained by bright sparkly things – such as those Transformers fans – this film offers plenty. There are exciting (though totally needless) car trips at speeds and with handling which appears totally unrealistic. I dislike the dismissive nature of saying such things look like “a computer game”, but these sequences certainly gave the impression of a sprite sliding across a screen rather than anything with any degree of physicality. Indeed, I could name a number of computer games which offer a greater sense of both speed and realism in their car chase elements than this Gatsby does.

But let’s back up a moment. What’s the story? Briefly, Jay Gatsby (Di Caprio) moves into a vast mansion next door to a small cottage owned by bond trader Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and hosts grand parties without ever really revealing himself. Carraway (and Gatsby) live on the opposite shore of a bay to Carraway’s cousin, Daisy Buchanon, and her husband Tom. Both Tom and Daisy hail from families of established wealth. Gatsby befriends Carraway with the intent of, ultimately, rekindling things with Daisy, whom he knew some 5 years previous when he was just leaving the army.

Carraway is our narrator, our guide to these people and events, and he fails to turn any of the people he introduces us to into real people. They are ciphers, pawns, there to represent whatever it is that is being said, not to inhabit a world or to react to each other. There are moments when both Tom and Gatsby explode in a kind of rage but it doesn’t seem to stem from the events in the scene, more because at that point they need to react that way to enable the story to move forward.

For a book that is supposed to be about how money is no substitute for humanity, Luhrmann has managed to make a film which shows that money spent on the screen is no substitute either. Perhaps that was the point, but he could have least made it interesting, he could have at least found one likeable character, or one believable character. And anyway, if that was his point, he kind of ruined it by telling us all to judge his Gatsby based on the box office.

Instead, the film seems to say that money is what we should all desire, but equally that we should all stick to our station. If you dream too highly, you will be like Icarus and come crashing down into the waves.

D- (the gentleman’s F)