WARNING: This piece should only be read after you've seen The Wolf of Wall Street. Thanks.
Writing about the Randy Newman album Born Again in 1978, the critic Robert Christgau registered a mild but pertinent complaint: "[R]ather than making you think about homophobes and heavy-metal toughs and me-decade assholes the way he once made you think about rednecks and slave traders and high school belles, he makes you think about how he feels about them. Which just isn't as interesting."
I suppose that in certain quarters, the only thing interesting about a movie, or the launching pad for anything interesting about a conversation or consideration about a movie, is how the moviemakers feel about their characters. Golly, the Coen brothers sure hate their characters don't they? But that David O. Russell, he LOVES his characters —characters who, like those in Wolf of Wall Street, are criminals—but they're NICE criminals, they're passionate they're in love, they're cuddly, and Jennifer Lawrence is AWESOME. Gosh, when did the critical class become so a) filled with flowery feeling and b), for lack of a better world, thick? Buñuel wouldn't do well with this crowd at all. "Hey—he's...he's...he's making FUN of us!"
OK, I'll stop. And I'm also being unfair. I'm not talking about much that's new. The specific complaints relevant to the Why-Doesn't-Martin-Scorsese-Take-Us-By-The-Hand-And-Show-Us-These-Are-Bad-People perplex goes way, way back. I can't find the actual piece on line, but well do I remember Rex Reed, back when he was more "with it," complaining of the sound-and-fury-signifying-little-or-nothing in Mean Streets. "Three hours of horrible people doing horrible things," is New York magazine film critic David Edelstein's description of Wolf; this isn't so far from Pauline Kael's disgust with 1984's The King of Comedy, her claim that "[t]he move reduces everybody to crud." I daresay Edelstein would respond "she's right!" Critics are of course entirely entitled to see things their own way and write about them thusly. Edelstein kicks off his review by saying that with this film Scorsese "continues his worship of masculine energy." But is it really worship? By the lights of Robin Wood, certain of Scorsese's works constitute the fiercest and most radical critiques of masculinity as it is formulated in the Western world. Wood himself formulated a reading of Raging Bull as a study of repressed homosexuality that the more famour David Thomson started peddling a few years back. A conventionaly worshiper of "masculine energy" might have smacked Robin Wood upside the head. Scorsese all but thanked him.
There's this thing that I see in certain critics who don't care much for Scorsese's work. I certainly see it in David's review of Wolf, and having looked over Kael's reviews of many Scorsese movies while preparing my critical study of Robert De Niro, it's there too, with a strong class bias as well; that is, they think Scorsese is a little bit dumb. Yeah, sure, he's a "ferociously" "accomplished" filmmaker and very erudite ABOUT MOVIES and so on, but he also kind of has to be some sort of unrefined mook, doesn't he? (Scorsese's own modesty concerning his intellectual attainments in interviews no doubt also contributes to this perception.) And thus, for instance, the extended, language-and-existence-debasing scene of Belfort and his lieutenants yammering about dwarves simply cannot be an Ionescoesque tour-de-force; no, it's a pointless scene that doesn't advance the narrative. (N.b., I'm not much for points myself. Christmas Eve, three people to whom I'd recommended Inside Llewyn Davis came up to me and told me they didn't much like it, largely because they didn't see that it had much of a "point." Didn't really have a good comeback for that.)
Two recent reviews of the film from friend-colleagues Richard Brody and Matt Zoller Seitz have addressed some of these issues quite eloquently. I think Matt really gets to the nub of a particularly uncomfortable aspect of the movie in the kicker of his review, which states: "We laugh at the movie, but guys like Belfort will never stop laughing at us." Wouldn't you rather talk about the new Beyonce album a little more, while we can still afford a download, than think about the criminality inherent in certain aspects of income inequality? Most employed movie critics, inasmuch as they are employed, are in a sense pipes in the Mighty Wurlitzer, after all. There is a certain irony that Scorsese's particular critique of capital is such an expensive one, and don't believe for a minute that he is not unaware of it. We all, or most of us, do what we can with the resources made available to us.
Richard Brody's close reading of the movie is also superb. (He also keys in on the movie's exhilaration factor in a way that's more sensitive and sensible than Jeffrey Wells' Dennis-Hopper-in-River's Edge riffs of approval.) His close reading of the movie's final shot is a masterpiece of both observation and critical-connectivity. He makes his case without giving anything away.
Brody reels off a list of Scorsese's strategies that more than, um, hint at a very specific directorial perspective, including "counterfactual scenes, subjective fantasies, and swirling choreography on a grand scale." These things aren't hidden; they are right there on the screen, filling the viewer's eyes and ears. Some, though, are more conspicuous than others. For instance, during one sequence Belfort recounts both the promiscuity and technical sexual virtuosity of a female Stratton Oakmont employee in detail that can only be called "gross." He then muses that another, male, Stratton Oakmont broker married the woman "anyway;" then Belfort tells us, "Three years later he got depressed and killed himself," and there's a flash of a photograph, practically Weegee-esque in its luridness, of a blood-filled bathtub with a dead arm hanging out of it, which the camera can't cut away from fast enough, it seems. But it stays on screen long enough to elicit a gasp, to make a near-viscral impression of the world outside of Belfort's necessarily circumscribed perspective. As do the dour but nearly lyrical shots of Kyle Chandler's F.B.I. agent in exactly the sort of workaday sad-sack scenario he mock-self-effacingly outlines to Belfort in their first meeting. Only by this point of the film Chandler's character is still "free," while Belfort is going to jail. What does it all mean, indeed.
As for the film's sexual politics, such as they are; because the themes of Scorsese's films have largely centered around masculine worlds, he's bound to come in for some critical challenges, some of which may be based on misunderstanding and some not. It's worth noting that prior to Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese was not known to use female nudity a whole hell of a lot. Nude scenes were frowned upon by his friend and mentor John Cassavetes. Scorsese himself has said that they tend to "stop a movie dead." With few exceptions (and even those exceptions weren't particularly outstanding), the women in Belfort's world were commdities, objects, and those who didn't play along with that scheme (see the stewardesses in the flight-to-Europe scene) were subject to special abuse. As rife with female nudity as Wolf is, Scorsese doesn't shoot it with anything like the sharp-focus knuckle-biting of a Michael Bay or the dreamy luxuriant arguable overappreciation of latter-day Bertolucci. And the glimpse of Donnie Azoff pulling his pud I think automatically answers the "where's the male full-frontal" question (which, yes, some have asked).
UPDATE: "What the fuck are these people watching?" a friend asks, in an e-mail headed "Every frame is soaked in point of view." He then cites the Stratton Oakmont employee who gets her head shaved. YES. That scene (aside from harking back to Dreyer) tilts the debauch of Wolf explicitly into the realm of the grotesque—of Guignol, even—and it takes place in the first ten minutes of the movie. "What the fuck?" my friend continues (he's a little worked up, and understandably so); "Did people forget what GoodFellas felt like the first time through?"