In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s repulsive, if energetic, The Wolf of Wall Street, the film’s main character, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), finds himself working amid Wall Street traders who make enthusiastic and pervasive use of expletives. Belfort finds that and so much more to his liking. For the viewer of this film, which clocks in at just under three hours, the endless repetition of frat-boy machismo dialogue becomes annoying while the relentlessly explicit sexuality is just cloying.
Because it teams two Hollywood greats, Scorsese and DiCaprio, and because it purports to offer a critique of mendacious capitalism, it will be lionized. There’s also the timing of the film’s release on Christmas Day — how deliciously ironic!
Of course, this is no cheap porn film. It has a real budget, real talent, and something approximating a real plot. There is some attempt to tell a rise-and-fall story of excess, but this is not a bonfire-of-the-vanities film, nor is it a cautionary tale about Wall Street. The characters are all over-the-top caricatures. No one learns anything. Allegedly an indictment of Wall Street, the film never shifts from the perspective of the wolves to that of the lambs, the victims of Wall Street’s systematic, self-interested deceptions. But then the supposition is that they, we, are all greedy little bastards as well. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers has said that this is a story — “scathing,” he dubs it — about America: “He’s looking at the American character. He’s looking at us.”
Perhaps. At one point, Belfort suggests that everyone wants to be rich, not just rich but freed-from-all-restraints rich, free to pursue uninhibited expression and passion. There are the clever voiceovers from Belfort in which he openly confesses — at times in a direct address to the audience — the greed and lust of the traders, who prey upon the rest of the ordinary people, people who have the same desires as the traders but are just too lazy, too fatuous, too beholden to petty, conventional morality to break through and seize the opportunity of American capitalism.
And apparently what every American really wants for Christmas is a libertine celebration of money, drugs, and free-flowing conversations about masturbation, female grooming, and oral sex. And not just conversation but the real thing — lots of oral sex, in fact, lots of sex of every kind, in positions of every kind, with partners of every kind and combination. DiCaprio is the new antihero, the Marquis de Sade of Wall Street.
The film has been praised for its pace and energy and its technical virtuosity. Well, it is a Scorsese film, after all. It does indeed move at a rapid pace from one scene and scheme to another. Except for their rapacious energy, there is nothing really to admire in these characters and even that becomes preposterous, tiresome, and repulsive after a good hour, let alone three, of nothing but that.
Perhaps the chief lesson of this film is what a colossal joke the Hollywood film-rating system is. A few years ago, The King’s Speech garnered an R rating for a scene in which the main character, alone and practicing speaking to overcome his stuttering, repeatedly pronounces the F-word. Never has there been a more innocuous use of that term. Reportedly Scorsese was forced to cut a few sex scenes to avoid an NC-17 rating. Oh, the tyranny of the censors.
The rating is beside the point. Closer in spirit to Scorsese’s Cape Fear than to Goodfellas or Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street fails both as art and as entertainment. Scorsese’s latest is notable only for its monotonous, self-indulgent nihilism.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.