By: Judd Livingston
The Wolf of Wall Street was shit. Pardon my French. It shouldn’t have been though, and I don’t get it. Martin Scorsese is no dummy; this wasn’t his first movie. It’s not like he’s blowing rails anymore, he’s an adult and capable of making sound, rational decisions. So how’d he fuck this one up so royally?
On the surface, the movie owes a lot to Goodfellas. Stealing from yourself is fine, right? Scorsese uses a lot of the same cinematic and narrative techniques in Wolf as he did in Goodfellas, and those techniques are effective. When used properly. If this movie is Goodfellas in the financial world, or Wall Street with more pussy and drugs, how come it isn’t as good as either of those flicks? It had the potential to be a great movie, especially when you consider how great a story Jordan Belfort has: turning a pink sheets pump and dump operation on it’s head by suckering institutional investors, getting away with it, AND being an amazingly functional junkie/whore-banger all at the same time. Sure, he did some time, that’s great for Hollywood because they can say “crime doesn’t pay”. The studios must’ve seen this as a story touched by Midas. Everything you could want in a blockbuster was right there. And then Marty took it and messed it up.
The problem, as far as I can tell, is that Scorsese made a three hour adaptation of the novel’s back cover synopsis rather than the novel itself. It’s all the trailer shots, but none of the character. Don’t get me wrong though: he does it well. If this ever shows up on Netflix, you could definitely pop that shit on and give the ol’ crankshaft a few jerks. He could direct a helluva Rick Ross video if he wanted to. But the T n’ A isn’t enough. No film can stand on T n’ A alone, not even one with Leonardo DiCaprio. But that’s not news, we all know we go to the movies for the storytelling, and there IS story here. A good one. Several good ones in fact.
To wit: the story of a drug addled disaster ruining his marriage. Or the story of a charismatic genius using his powers for evil and then getting his comeuppance. Or a cat-and-mouse story of a work-a-day FBI agent busting his ass to bring one of those arrogant 1%-ers to heel. Or a story of the enduring friendship of two young guys who embark on a crazy adventure that leads them down a dangerous path. Or, I guess, a story of how many hookers and drugs one man could consume. Of all of the above, which one sounds the LEAST exciting for a three hour movie? And that’s another thing: the time. Marty mighta pulled this off if he’d cut out so many of the redundant drug/hooker scenes. Cull this baby to an hour and 45 minutes and you’d have a decent little picture. Jonah Hill knocks it out of the park as the hilariously unhinged best friend Donnie Azoff. Margot Robbie pulls what I’m sure she hopes will be her Sharon Stone-Casino turn as Naomi, although it’s not quite that good. Leo is the same as he is in every movie: solid, but neither surprising, nor disappointing. I’m hoping a fan edit makes it’s way online once the Blu-ray is out.
So if Scorcese wanted The Wolf of Wall Street to be the Goodfellas of the financial world, or a sexy update of Wall Street, let’s look at why he failed in that. The reason we loved Goodfellas has nothing to do with the violence; we can get that in any mediocre action flick (see some examples of that kind of thinking here). It has nothing to do with the gratuitous amounts of swearing; we can hear that in any pub on a Friday night. Nor was it the amazing cars or the awesome soundtrack, or the recipes from Paul Sorvino. Hell, even the Scorcese cinematography and camera moves were old news by then. It wasn’t any of the stuff people talk about; it was much simpler than that: it was an inside scoop on the mob. Same goes for Wall Street: it wasn’t just the story of a broker, it was the story of brokers showing us how their world worked while at the same time providing us with a few choice characters whose drama we could watch unfold.
Goodfellas had Ray Liotta’s dulcet narration, which took us into the inner-workings of the mafia, the behind-the-scenes shit. No mob movie had done that before. Even The Godfather didn’t touch on the specifics the way Goodfellas does. It made us feel like insiders by bringing us inside this small, impenetrable society. We rode along with Henry Hill on his sojourn from little weasel to wiseguy, and it was a helluva vicarious trip. Marty used that same technique in The Wolf of Wall Street, as DiCaprio’s baritone does a nice job of filling in for Liotta’s, but he chose to do the exact opposite with it, and he does so knowingly.
While in Goodfellas the narration was used to further pull back the curtain to expose the mechanics of mob life, DiCaprio’s character uses it merely to elaborate on the crazy lifestyle that the visuals are representing just fine for us. On the few occasions where he does begin to delve into the methods behind the monetary madness, he stops short and flippantly tells the audience “You don’t care about all that shit!” and goes back to the luudes, whores and blow. You’re wrong Leo, we DO care! So much more than we care about three hours of you doing drugs over and over and over again.
The most frustrating thing about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it excelled in every other aspect: some great performances and great visuals, but just not enough editing to bring the story up to par. Had they tightened the whole thing up, it could’ve been one of Scorsese’s best.