The Wolf of Wall Street is About Excess and Debauchery: Should You See It?

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Stephanie Feinstein

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see The Wolf of Wall Street?

Spoilers, of course.

First of all, this was a really long 180 minutes, and the first 45 are just 2000’s Boiler Room all over again.

This is a true story: The real deal Jordan Belfort wrote a memoir about how he swindled the hell out of America, and Scorsese decided that would make a good movie. But unlike so many other debauchery-focused films, it lacks reflection and remorse.

This lack of victims, of consequence, of remorse, of pain, are my issues with Scorsese’s latest. The movie spirals down a hole of moral ambiguity, drowning in its own self-righteousness.

“But he gets caught!” You might argue, “He pays for his sins!” I disagree. A 36-month stint in a Nevada white-collar prison does not atonement make. Referring to the incarceration as a respite from his money-hungry life, he feels no remorse for what put him there.

There is a lack of remorse for cheating on his first wife, and we see no repercussions of divorce. There is no aftermath of her marriage, no additional hospitality or hurt. No or media backlash; no paparazzi-fueled tabloids.

When his yacht sinks during a hellacious storm, no one is harmed and only the yacht (which I assume to be heavily insured), suffers. His wife is fine, their friends are fine, no crew is lost. The plane coming to rescue them after the wreck? It explodes, killing three people. Do we see the funerals, the anguish of having ruined other lives? No. He does not even openly acknowledge the explosion, glossing over it in a smooth voice over, paving the way for his reluctant sobriety.

The two scenes that most display the lack of morality and compass do not use yachts, planes, or pussy to make a point. When Belfort Lemmon-ludes up and over at the country club, he chooses to drive his expensive-ass car home, despite a total lack of motor skills. He claims to have made it home without a scratch on himself or the gleaming Lamborghini. As the audience, we believe him until officers show up the next day, ready for an arrest.

If this were a tale of moral understanding and growth, more than just a fender and door would be damaged. In screenplay-land, this is the time to show us a bit of blood on the hood and imply that Belfort cost someone more than just their savings. This moral resolution does not appear; the charges of DWI are dropped without evidence.

Another car, a Mercedes with a passenger, and another great display. During Belfort’s slide further down the amoral rabbit hole, his model wife Naomi LaPaglia (Margot Robbie) challenges his life and he flips his shit. Destroying a sofa in search of his “small stash” (what I assume to be about ¼ pound of uncut cocaine), he buries his nose into the powder before snatching up his eldest child and attempting to flee the property. As expected, the car crashes, and although the child is absolutely not large enough or old enough to be in the front seat safely in an accident, no great harm is done.

As before, if this story was to have a lesson — a moral, an actual resolve beyond greed –that child would not have arrived unscathed. But like so many other things, Belfort’s life continues unruffled, no matter what he is facing.

As for the rest of the film, the side characters are by far the best. Cristin Milioti as the suffering first wife (Teresa Petrillo), has a beautiful emotional breakdown after finding DiCaprio’s Belfort cheating. A recent television sensation (she’s the mother in How I Met Your Mother), she plays the Jersey hairdresser delightfully.

Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff) is another surprising standout, as I was not really expecting much from him (Protip: To understand how I feel about Jonah, please watch 2008’s Strange Wilderness.) His meandering, pseudo-improvised diatribes are often humorous, but feel disjointed. It was great to see him jacking off at the party, smoking crack, or rip-torn on blow and pills, but the “chops” didn’t feel as genuine.

Anyone out there remember Early Edition? Crime solving with psychic newspapers? Kyle Chandler remembers, as he plays ineffectual FBI agent Patrick Denham in Wolf, making little money and an even smaller impact in the financial world. (His will-they-won’t-they bribe scene is pretty great.). Would the story be stronger if Chandler was again paired with a psychic newspaper? Maybe.

The cameos of television actors don’t end there, as Kenneth Choi (Sons of Anarchy), Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) make appearances with different ends. The addition of seasoned veterans Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and Jean Dujardin rounds out the strong cast, but no one can save the film. Even the real Jordan Belfort, cleverly hidden in the end as an announcer in Auckland, cannot give enough gravitas or remorse to save it all.

Best Part: Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna. A single real scene, the introduction of drugs, a weirdly racist chest thumping, and the drive of the all-mighty dollar, McConaughey was better than the movie deserved. I wanted so much for him to return in the end, check up on Jordan, challenge him in some way, but to no avail. The chest-thumping remains, but McConaughey leaves us far too soon.

 2nd Best Part: DiCaprio’s worm flailing at the country club. Hilarious, as well as a great look at an actor not known for his physicality in roles (Gilbert Grape notwithstanding.) The fact it so delightfully mimicked his dancing at his wedding made it all the better.

Overall: In the kidnapping-car crash, Jordan receives a small wound on his forehead, and a trickle of blood is our only real indication of his pain. We see no recovery, no regret, no growth.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort bleeds, but it is never enough.

Should You See It? (Well, now rent it): Sure. I will say that I am super-duper glad I did not see this in theaters, as the debauchery of it all would have been too great, with no great Hunter S. reflection. At home, on the sofa, it’s a great watching experience. The story is surprisingly fun, once you get past all the moral ineptitude.

Stephanie Feinstein yells at her television daily, and you will never change that. You can challenge her at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.

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