Druggy Wolf of Wall Street is New Scarface

I saw Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount, 12.25) for the second time last night, and it felt just as wild and manic as it did the first time. (And without an ounce of fat — it’s very tightly constructed.) And yet it’s a highly moral film…mostly. Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and all the rest are never really “in the room” with these depraved Stratton Oakmont brokers. They’re obviously juiced with the spirit of play-acting and pumping the film up and revving their engines, but each and every scene has an invisible subtitle that says “do you see get what kind of sick diseased fucks these guys were?…do you understand that Jordan Belfort‘s exploits redefined the term ‘asshole’ for all time?”

Why, then, did I say that Wolf is “mostly” moral? Because there’s a subcurrent that revels in the bacchanalian exploits of Belfort and his homies. It broadly satirizes Roman-orgy behavior while winking at it. (Or half-winking.) Unlike the Queens-residing goombahs in Goodfellas, whom he obviously feels a mixed affection for, Scorsese clearly doesn’t like or relate to the Stratton Oakmont guys. But the 71 year-old director also knows first-hand how enjoyable drug-abuse can be for cocky Type-A personalities in groups, and he conveys this in spades. Wolf is clearly “personal” for Scorsese. Like everyone else who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, he is believed to have “indulged” to some extent. (Whatever the truth of it, 1977’s New York, New York has long been regarded as a huge cocaine movie.) One presumes that Scorsese is living a sensible and relatively healthy life these days, but boy, does he remember!

And it hit me last night that The Wolf of Wall Street is going to be enjoyed by audiences as a rollicking memory-lane drug party. Anyone who lived any kind of Caligula-type life in their late teens and 20s is going to get off on it. Because as deplorable and outrageous as the film’s party behavior seems, it’s also oddly infectious.

I saw Wolf with critics the first time, but last night’s screening played to a more mixed crowd and they were howling at times, trust me. Losing it, laughing hard. Were they absorbing what Scorsese and DiCaprio were really saying? Sure, of course, but I could sense that they were getting tingly contact highs. For The Wolf of Wall Street takes you back to your wildly irresponsible carousing days, allows you to laugh uproariously at the dumb (and perhaps reprehensible) things you did and have probably forgotten about, and then sets you free when it’s over.

And yet for older, stodgier types who never went there in their teens or 20s or did and are determined to keep those memories in a locked box (or for those who can’t handle the crude sexual exploitation of women, which has always been a nocturnal characteristic of arrogant Wall Street types), Wolf is going to be seen as an ugly three-hour romp and nothing more. It’s not judgmental enough, Belfort is too much of a prick, what’s the point of this? and so on.

This is why I’m calling The Wolf of Wall Street the new Scarface. It has so far been shat upon in certain quarters by the same kind of harumphy industry crowd that despised Brian DePalma‘s 1983 crime pic. And just as Scarface eventually became a cult flick (especially among “urban” rapper/hip-hop types who idolized gangsta culture and the swagger of Al Pacino‘s Tony Montana) it’s probably going to be embraced by (a) present-day party animals and by (b) 40- and 50-somethings those who remember their druggy days and want to enjoy them once again by proxy — a three-hour tour.

The Scarface Wiki page interprets the film’s reception as follows: “According to AMC’s ‘DVD TV: Much More Movie’ airing, Cher loved it [but] Lucille Ball, who came with her family, hated it because of the graphic violence and language, and Dustin Hoffman was said to have fallen asleep. Writers Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving were among those who allegedly walked out in disgust after the notorious chainsaw scene. At the middle of the film, Martin Scorsese turned to Steven Bauer and told him, ‘You guys are great but be prepared, because they’re going to hate it in Hollywood…because it’s about them.’

Leonard Maltin was among those critics who held a negative opinion of Scarface,” the page says. “He gave the film 1 1/2 stars out of four, stating that ‘…[Scarface] wallows in excess and unpleasantness for nearly three hours, and offers no new insights except that crime doesn’t pay.’ In later editions of his annual movie guide, Maltin included an addendum to his review stating his surprise with the film’s newfound popularity as a cult-classic.”

This is why The Wolf of Wall Street is the only truly bold and nervy film in the Best Picture circle right now. It’s both appalling and gutsy as hell — a wild-ass moralistic “comedy.” It’s clearly condemning Belfort’s behavior and yet…

Confession: I used to recreate with drugs (pot, hallucinogens, opiates) in my 20s. On top of which I had a vodka problem in the early to mid ’90s, and I had an alcoholic dad who passed along a good amount of emotional misery before joining AA in the mid ’70s. So I know a little something about substance-abuse pitfalls. Addiction is the banshee that could have taken me to hell but shrugged and gave me a ‘get out of jail’ card instead. I was spared, grew past it, whatever…and yet there but for the grace of God.

The Wolf of Wall Street reminded me of the “farewell, my dignity” aspect of drug abuse. Constant assaults on your self-esteem, stains on your soul, humiliations unbridled. One way or another, if you do drugs you’re going to be dragged down and made to feel like a low-life animal. Because that’s what you are as long as you let drugs run the show.

Drugs didn’t exactly “run the show” when I was 22 or 23, but they sure were my friends. I saw my life as a series of necessary survival moves, adventures, spiritual door-openings, comic exploits, erotic intrigues — everything and anything that didn’t involve duty, drudgery, having a career and mowing the lawn on weekends. Pot, hashish, mescaline, peyote buttons, Jack Daniels and beer were my comrades in crime.

I’m going to leave aside discussions of my Godhead Siddhartha discoveries with LSD, and I’d just as soon forget my relatively brief encounters with blithering idiot marching powder from the late ’70s to mid ’80s.

  • DuluozRedux

    “And without an ounce of fat — it’s very tightly constructed.”

    Funniest line I have read today.

    • lazarus

      Duluoz apparently unable to understand that a longer film can be well-paced and polished.

      • The Perils of Thinking

        You could have ended that sentence after five words.

    • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

      It IS tightly constructed. What’s funny?

      • Michael

        Whatever Wolf is, tightly constructed it is not. Many loose ends, scenes that are played out way to long, after all there is a reason why a 132 page shooting script turned into a three hour movie. Just think off how much information there is in Goodfellas or Casino. 20 years ago Scorsese would have packed the content of Wolf into a lean two hour movie…

        • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

          Nope. I just re-read Winters’ script. (The first draft, I mean.) The way Scorsese shot it kicks it up to whole ‘nother level. The film is a much grander, more sprawling thing. Crazier, more asylum-like.

          • Glenn Kenny

            Whatever you say, Emeril. (Jesus.)

            But hey! You’re BOTH wrong, although Jeff is more right. The construction of “Wolf” is pretty tricky. It seems, given the narration and the litany of BAD things and other factors, like it’s gonna move on a “Goodfellas” kind of track, but while “Goodfellas” was all fast scenes and a lot of them, “Wolf” actually has a relatively small number of scenes, which are tied together by these fast-and-blunt interstices. The ostensible lack of information is also purposeful. Every time Belfort’s about to explain how a certain financial scam goes down, he backs down and makes a smartass remark about how you, the viewer, don’t care or are too dumb to process it. This is entirely different from the detailed analysis of how the house gets your money in “Casino.”

            I can see why it took a year to edit. As to what Scorsese’s actually up to, well…that’s not really for this thread.

          • GigglesForGigli

            So, you’re saying that it is now basically full of fat?

  • berg

    nice to see Variety name Mr. Nobody as one of their top ten of the year

  • pizan܍amore

    Well let’s hope it’s a little more thoughtful than Scarface.

    GREG WEINSTEIN SAYS…

    Wolf of Wall Street is the New Wall Street.

  • roland1824

    American Hustle is finally out in theaters today, so better keep the Wolf of Wall Street puff pieces coming!

  • Bernie

    I guess you can consider me a “combo” WOLF viewer. I was laughing hysterically in my seat AND I left the theatre asking myself what’s the point of all this?

    I’m not gonna be straight-up dismissive of Jeff’s SCARFACE comparison. Because it’s a pretty good one. But then again, we’re talking SCARFACE! Is it considered a classic? Sure. By a huge chunk of the knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing neanderthal population (who Jeff despises!) It became a cult film partly because it got embraced by the gangster, thug life culture. It didn’t become cult because young people thought it was moralistic or a cautionary tale. Or particularly insightful for that matter. Jeff, you would have hated SCARFACE if it arrived in theaters today. Just like you hated DJANGO — which, btw, at least had a main character motivated by love.

    Not to mention WOLF is arriving within the context of awards season, from of all people — Scorsese. Not someone like DePalma. We expect movies “of substance” from Scorsese. We expect meaning. Resonance.

    You keep telling us WOLF is a highly moralistic movie. A metaphor for our times. But to me it wasn’t moralistic on it’s face or in it’s non-existence subtext. There’s no there there. It’s simply an extremely funny and entertaining depiction of wanton greed, depravity and excess. Nothing less. And definitely nothing more.

    • bastard in a basket

      I haven’t seen the film yet but from what I’ve read the last hour or so is about Belfort self-destructing via drug abuse and the Feds closing and Belfort’s eventual arrest and incarceration. I suppose that is the “moralistic” part of the film, if you can even call it that. That being said, this is a true story and if Belfort truly felt no remorse or no real regret, then why should Scorsese portray him that way? That would be pandering.

      Remember the end of Goodfellas? Henry Hill felt no remorse for his crimes and cared less that he ratted out Jimmy and Paulie. His only regret was that he could no longer live that life. Or as a Roger Ebert wrote in his great review of the film: “In the end, his only regret is was he had no more soul to sell.”

      And by the way, I prefer Carlitos Way to Scarface.

      • Bernie

        There was humanity to Liotta’s Hill. Real genuine human emotion. Think about Henry going to Paulie in the end, pleading for forgiveness — he screwed up and is sincerely remorseful. Compare the scene to Belfort pleading with his wife not to take the kids. Which is complete utter bullshit, because we KNOW Belfort doesn’t care one bit about his kids. The scene doesn’t ring true.

        Again, it’s about the humanity of the characters. For Henry Hill there was sincere regret when Tommy got whacked. Sincere love when he married Karen. We, as an audience cared.

        None of that in Leo’s Belfort. None.

        • DuluozRedux

          This, a thousand times.

        • bastard in a basket

          “3200 dollars he gave me. 3200 dollars for a lifetime.”

          Again, I haven’t seen Wolf so I can’t comment on those scenes. And while the scene where Hill pleads with Paulie is fantastic, I still think it’s more about self-preservation than sincere remorse. And what scene of “sincere regret” did Hill show for Tommy? It was Jimmy who was sobbing while Hill kind of just stood there (the real Henry Hill did a commentary for the DVD and at that scene he admits he was happy Tommy was killed as he’s was constantly fearful that Tommy would one day kill him).

          You’re definitely right though about Karen. It was that relationship that was really the “sympathetic” center of the film.

    • Roger in Orlando

      Absolutely right. Scorsese the Moralist left out the morality, and the film is emptier for it.

  • Ray Quick

    Almost every single man on this planet who sees this movie will WANT to be like DiCaprio in it. No matter what the comeuppance for the characters or the alleged moral disgust from both filmmakers and critics, you can’t make a movie about unabashed high-rolling, partying, sex with beautiful women, fast cars, and money without it looking exciting and awesome to any guy who sees it. I know dozens of dudes who ACTIVELY JOINED THE MARINES specifically BECAUSE of how awesome it looked in Full Metal Jacket. And that’s a movie about THE VIETNAM WAR. So I really don’t think the young male mind is gonna balk at BANGING MARGOT ROBBIE. It would be a prize worth anything on this planet.

    • Awardsdaily

      Yeah probably – but that’s the whole point of it. If you didn’t want to be him there would really be no point to the movie at all. But glimpses through here and there tell a slightly different story. Any guy who walks out of there in search of a job on Wall Street and a line of coke is not only missing the point but soon to be the punchline.

      • DuluozRedux

        Yeah, just like the people rooting for Walter White were watching Breaking bad “wrong.”

    • Guest

      “sex with beautiful women”

      In Leo’s case, it’s men. :)

  • JoeS

    Using SCARFACE as a comparison is not a selling to many – and, I certainly don’t consider myself part of the “harumphy industry crowd”. SCARFACE was an exciting exuberant… mess. It was the beginning of the end for DePalma as a filmmaker to watch (understanding that there were folks who never bought in).

    And, as Bernie noted, SCARFACE is a cult classic based mainly on folks who take the wrong message from it. And, since when does “cult” equate with “good” necessarily??!! There are exceptions, but PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, TROLL 2 and THE ROOM are cult classics as well.

    Hopefully, WOLF is better and more cogent than SCARFACE, Jeff.

  • Awardsdaily

    It is much more of a rich experience the second time through. You notice how subtle the undertones of morality are much more clearly, which has to explain why some people come out of it missing that entirely and seeing it as a pro-misogynist celebration of grotesque behavior. It’s a masterpiece.

    • Bernie

      My question is, will audiences embrace the film because of these “subtle undertones of morality” that you mention or will they embrace it because it depicts epic debauchery in all it’s Scorsesian glory?

      If Lex (down below) is right and every guy will want to be Leo. And Jeff is correct in his comparison to the cult following of SCARFACE, I suspect the latter. Which I’m not a 100% sure is a good thing. Even you, Sasha, are going to be groaning: “Ugh. Really? Are you sure you don’t want to see it a second time so you can pick up on the moral underpinnings?”

      • Awardsdaily

        You bring up great points all around Bernie. I don’t know what people will make of it. Chatting with a few people afterwards they seemed split up. Me and Jeff were enthusiastic, Karina Longworth I believe also loved it. But some said “it was a shallow movie about shallow people.” I got in an argument on Twitter with several who kept saying it was endorsing misogyny. Thing is, it hardly endorses it. It just doesn’t sidestep it – and thank god for someone willing to really lay it out there. This movie has two key moments which come at the end, which I can’t say because they’re spoilers. If you’re into the movie and following along the message of what it’s about will really sink in. It gets right to the heart of the following John Steinbeck quote:

        “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

        What’s happened to this country economically in the past ten, twenty years is disgraceful. And yet, business as usual, eh? Except for the artists who are still ready to nail their ball sacks to the wall.

  • http://moviebob.blogspot.com/ MovieBob

    Here’s the thing: If you make movies set in the world (or, in this case as in “Scarface,” in the HEAD) of debauched, high-living criminals like Tony Montana or Belfort and it DOESN’T look, at least for 2 out of 3 acts, like a fucking awesome life that you’d absolutely want to live some version of… you’re being a dishonest filmmaker, storyteller, etc. Because the fact that – for all he ended up paying for it – this guy GENUINELY loved what his life was at the peak is the only way any of his actions make a lick of sense.

    And even if mountains of coke, vintage luudes, amazing cars and an endless stream of Playboy-hot women at your beck and call isn’t YOUR “thing,” Scorsese and the actors make you feel how awesome this scene was for these guys and understand (if not sympathize with) why Belfort never takes advantage of dozens and dozens of opportunities to say “That’s enough, I’m full now” and walk away. It CAN’T be 100% heavy “this is wrong, look what this is doing to you” horror-show karma because even if that’s realistic it’s not HONEST. You have to show the Roman Orgy of an “office” being a blast because it being a blast is why they did it. You HAVE to cast Margot Robbie in this part, because Margot Robbie looks exactly like a woman you’d throw your life away for 11 seconds of sex with.

    The down side, yes, is that just like with “Scarface,” (and “Fight Club,” while we’re at it), that level of honesty – i.e. that assholes are assholes because BEING an asshole feels great until it doesn’t – means you’re going to get a bunch of douchebag bro’s who ONLY absorb that surface-level aspect of the honesty and decide that they “love” this movie for all the right reasons. There will be a sustained explosion of white suburbanite fratboy dipshits who will call this their favorite movie and unironically fire off Belfort’s quotes and use him as their FB/Twitter icon, and they will make it really hard for serious-minded film people to talk/think about the movie without thinking about how tiresome it’s fans are for a year or two. Comes with the territory, but that’s not a fault OF the film.

    • JoeS

      Sure it is. Just compare the two versions of SCARFACE. One is ‘responsible’ (the original), the other isn’t. You didn’t want to be Scarface at the end of the Hawks version.

    • Bernie

      It’s not the fault of the film, IF there is an element of morality about the scenario at play. IF there’s a sense of what you’re seeing is wrong or reprehensible. A film about a remorseless character indiscriminately slaughtering innocent people in bloody, fun and creative ways is just a Splatter Film. Do idiots love splatter films? Sure. But that doesn’t validate the films. High-minded, thoughtful and intelligent people (Sasha/Jeff) can’t just watch a Splatter Film and infuse it with stuff in their head: “Wow, it’s such a brilliant commentary on our violent society. Aren’t we all just metaphorically just like this insane maniac?” No. The morality of the movie HAS to somehow be conveyed IN THE FILM — Either blatantly or sub-textually. But it MUST be conveyed. If it’s not, and the moral over/under-pinnings are lost or not present, then the movie has failed. It’s just a compilation porn film.

      Jeez, forgive me if I’ve gone too far in my illustration. But I do think it’s interesting to discuss the “meaning” of films (for lack of a better word.) And whether meanings are actually IN films we watch, or do we bring our biases/views of the world/sense of justice IN OUR HEADS and therefore infuse movies that aren’t apparently moral with meaning.

      • bastard in a basket

        Totally agree with everything you’re saying. But do you honestly believe an artist the calibre of Scorsese would consciously make “just a compilation porn film?”

        I am interested then in your thoughts of “The Departed”. I hated the ending because I had sincerely invested and sympathized with DiCaprio’s character but I thought his death was essentially treated like a joke. I hated the final shot of the rat, which to me sort of summarized the movie and the character’s plights as some sort of cosmic joke, a pointless nihilistic exercise. Maybe Scorsese just isn’t for everybody.

        • Bernie

          I’ve actually been thinking a lot about THE DEPARTED (which I loved) since seeing WOLF. And I think throughout DEPARTED DiCaprio’s humanity and morality are a direct counterpoint to Damon’s and Nicholson’s characters. So it’s all good.

          I think it’s interesting you bring up Scorsese. Because he’s the elephant in the room as far as this whole discussion is concerned. Please forgive my presumptuousness. But I honestly thought one of the potentially best, yet completely underdeveloped figures in WOLF was the Kyle Chandler character. And I wonder if my reaction would have been different if I saw more of what he was like. The life he led. Maybe if the movie showed his dowdy wife and dumpy apartment. Or maybe go Popeye Doyle on the character — showing him eating a hot dog on a freezing street, while watching the bad guys eat a gourmet dinner. Something on those lines. Just the mere depiction of the straight, honest life as a counterpoint to the debauchery would have made all the difference for me. The last subway scene with Chandler’s character watching all the seedy regular folk on the train came really close. But not enough for me to go: “Wow, now I completely get the moral context of this movie — the regular folks who lost their homes or who live like crap, while Belfort did blow off a hooker’s asses.” (All the things that Sasha read into the film.)

    • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

      Well said.

  • D.Z.

    I think the appeal of Scarface lies in Tony’s humble everyman beginnings. The reason he became a type of anti-hero is because he represents the flawed underdog in all of us. Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, focuses on people who are total corporate scumbags who even Tony would condemn- especially since they’re the types who might foreclose on his mom’s house.

    And even though more Americans support legalization and/or decriminalization of drugs today, I don’t think their negative views regarding junkies, coke-heads and other similar lowlifes, has diminished. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting seems to be the one exception in that area, possibly because he had really good marketing people on his side. [I don't count the Cheech and Chong movies, because they're comedies, not dramas.] Plus, the dudes in Trainspotting aren’t getting wasted through the help of OPM.

    Suffice to say, Wolf of Wall Street sounds like Marty’s American Psycho, a dark comedy sleeper, and not something with mass appeal. Though at least American Psycho had a sensible budget. Not sure why Wolf needed to cost $100 million.

    • Magga

      I’m a broken record on this. but why do you give a crap what the budget is? Watch the movie, like it or dislike it, forget it or re-watch it, but why are we always talking about budgets and grosses when we discuss movies?

      • D.Z.

        I think it undermines the whole purpose of criticizing corporate greed by trying to turn your diatribe into a tentpole. Sort of like how Avatar complains about environmental destruction and then profits through non-biodegradable merch which adds to landfills. It undermines the purpose of the message, and appears to be trying to have it both ways.

    • http://www.hollywood-elsewhere.com/ Jeffrey Wells

      No — Belfort came from humble beginnings. Do your research before writing something here.

      • D.Z.

        His Wikipedia entry says he’s the son of accountants. I’m not sure how that’s “humble”.