How much I like a movie is sometimes defined by how long I hold it at arm’s length in the beginning. I’m always on edge when I start a new movie. There’s always a probation period in which I think, Was it a mistake to begin this? Am I about to waste two or three hours of my time? I’m a tough cookie to crack and if you fuck up the opening, there’s no way of winning me over. That’s the most important part of any story: the way you begin it.
Although this probation period is almost always shorter with the handful of directors I admire the most, it’s much more anxious, much more intense. That’s because there’s nothing worse than seeing a master fall. Every time Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Scorsese, and P.T. Anderson release a movie, I have to see it. They’re simply the best in the business. But when they misfire, boy it hurts.
The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s misfire.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine movie. Had almost anyone else directed it I would have been a bit more appreciative of the effort. But this isn’t just anyone. This is the guy who made Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino. Even The Departed couldn’t hold up a candle to his previous films, but it was still probably the best film of its year. Wolf isn’t the greatest film of the year. It probably shouldn’t even be nominated for best picture. Then again, when do the Oscars actually get it right?
Back to The Departed. It wasn’t one of his better efforts, but I still loved it. The probation period for that movie was over the second Jack Nicholson’s gruff voiceover appeared over the Rolling Stones. That happened within seconds and I was all in. In that instant we know we’re in for quintessential Scorsese, the Scorsese we know and love. It had been a while since we had seen that kind of movie from him. We were all ready to welcome it back. We wanted to see more of the same.
The opening of The Wolf of Wall Street, however, tries too hard to be quintessential Scorsese. We know what it’s doing. We know where it’s going. We can see all the tricks up its sleeve. A lot of people are bothered by the rampant nudity and vulgar humor. Puritans everywhere are feigning disgust and walking out of every showing. That’s not what’s wrong with this movie. Hell, as a trash connoisseur I have to say that’s my favorite part. The only problem with the trash elements is the fact they’re supposed to be there for a reason—to show us how fucked up Wall Street is. That Scorsese wants to pretend it’s not at all gratuitous is kind of chicken-shit.
Look, I liked the movie. This was not, by any means, three hours of wasted time, but it just shouldn’t have taken three hours to tell us there’s corruption on Wall Street. It’s kind of like, “No shit.” And I had a hard time focusing on the movie when it wasn’t assaulting us with party animal antics. When Leonardo DiCaprio punches his wife in the belly and jerks his kid out of the house by her arm, I’m wondering what’s the point. The only thing they have left to say at that point has already been said. This isn’t satire. This isn’t sophisticated criticism on our culture. It’s pure and simple entertainment—nothing wrong with that—but it tries to hide what it is.
You remember the pool hall fight in Mean Streets. You remember when Pesci busts Ray Liotta’s balls in Goodfellas. You remember that time Robert DeNiro got himself blown up in Casino. And those weren’t the only memorable moments in those movies, either. The Wolf of Wall Street is lacking all of the poetry of those films. We can’t root for any of the characters either. This is the one time an FBI agent is actually characterized at all in one of his movies and you wonder, again, what’s the point. It was much better when they were just faceless men hiding in the bushes with telephoto lenses and running out of gas in their spy planes. The fact that Scorsese sort of gives one of these guys a bit more screen time just indicates there was a wasted opportunity here. The character just doesn’t add enough to the picture.
The Scorsese/DiCaprio powerhouse is wearing thin. We’ve seen it too many times. It’s a repeat with even less of the stuff we want to see. It’s still a good movie, but it’s nowhere near a masterpiece.