A funny thing happened after I filed my 3 star review of The Wolf of Wall Street. I found myself aligning more and more with the people who didn’t like the film. It’s not that I don’t think The Wolf of Wall Street is a piece of bravura filmmaking—in fact, that’s almost all I think it is: virtuoso technique serving an unworthy story. What’s more, I’m turned off by the film’s defenders, who seem to think that if you didn’t love The Wolf of Wall Street as much as they did, you’re either shallow, puritanical, missing the satire chip, or expect neat moral resolutions in all your art. I don’t expect neat moral resolutions, but I do think films need to have some sort of moral compass. And yes, I understand that The Wolf of Wall Street is unique because it’s told solely from the (unreliable) narration of a braggart and a sociopath. But…so what? As I’ve said many times on Twitter (@maxthegirl), what did we learn about the specific sociopathy of Jordan Belfort? What new thing did we learn about Wall Street, about greed, about excess? Nothing, as far as I saw. So, understanding the audacity of what I’m about to put forward (Scorsese is arguably our greatest living filmmaker—I can’t even get my reviews on Rotten Tomatoes), here are my suggestion for 6 ways The Wolf of Wall Street could’ve been better.
1. Give Jordan a more interesting backstory (or, for that matter, any interior life at all). Was he bullied as a kid? Is he a closeted homosexual? Did his father tell him he’d amount to nothing? Did he witness his father’s humiliation at the hand of a wealthy neighbor or boss? Does he have a small penis? (Just kidding. Of course he has a small penis.) Give me something specific that tells me what made this character tick and why he made the choices he did. Then, if nothing else, The Wolf of Wall Street would work as a character study.
2. Focus more on Kyle Chandler’s federal agent. This was a technique that Steven Spielberg employed, quite winningly, in Catch Me if You Can. The DiCaprio character (again!) in that film was fun, charming, rascally—we enjoyed being in his presence. Tom Hanks’ Carl Hanratty, on the other hand, was grinding his way through a joyless, bureaucratic life, committed to doing the right thing, no matter how thankless it may have been. The contrast between the “dullness of decency,” if you will, and the charisma of DiCaprio’s glamorous conman created an interesting prism through which to view the film and assess our own moral judgments. Scorsese hints at that, especially in one of the later scenes, when we see Chandler’s agent riding home on the subway, but never really goes there.
3. Have a dissenting character within Jordan’s ranks. I realize that The Wolf of Wall Street is based on Jordan’s memoirs and, by all accounts, there was no such character. But “based on a true story” leaves wiggle room. What if Jordan had an friend/employee who questioned the excess, the corruption, the greed? Anyone in his midst to serve as some sort of voice of humanity, to ask Jordan when will it ever be enough? Everyone in this movie blithely goes along with him. No one quits. Not one person says, “I can’t live like this.”
4. Give Jordan himself some sort of existential crisis. I just finished watching Harmony Korine’s hypnotic Spring Breakers, so maybe I’m unduly influenced by it, but there were several moments in that film where, in the midst of the bacchanal, the camera gets in close on the revelers and we see their…dread. The parties in that film leave a sickening aftertaste and not just because we judge the characters harshly—rather because their own self-loathing is the ever-present but never mentioned party guest.
5. Show us the victims! It’s actually stunning that we never really see the consequences of Jordan’s actions. We never see the poor patsies he robbed blind. We see his first wife, in one angry moment on the sidewalk, when he replaces her for a younger, prettier model. But we don’t stay with her. We see Jordan’s second wife, who is certainly a victim of his abuse (in one scene, he actually rapes her), but, like all the characters in the film, has virtually no interior life—and, in fact, is seen as a social grasper and clear-eyed accomplice. (If Scorsese really cares about her pain, he has a curious way of showing it.) We see the face of a woman who works for Jordan, when in a gleeful hazing ritual her head is shaved by her coworkers. That is one of the rare moments in the film where Scorsese focuses on the perspective of someone who is not having fun yet, who has been victimized by this misogynistic frathouse-on-steroids, and can’t escape. The horror on her face speaks volumes. And again, it’s gone in a flash.
6. Tell us something about Wall Street we don’t already know. I’ve seen lots of movies about Wall Street and cold-call salesmen: Both of Oliver Stones films, The Boiler Room, Margin Call, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Company Men, Too Big To Fail (a documentary), etc. Each of those films told me something interesting and new either about the machinations of Wall Street or about the specific mentality/technique of a salesman. Jordan has a few clever ideas up his sleeve—creating a phony silk stocking firm is one of them—but beyond that, the film was much more interested in what he did with his fortune than how he made it.
I can already hear people reacting to this column with: Why not add puppies! There were no puppies in the film either! (Or some other equally snide thing. Trust me, this is how these The Wolf of Wall Street lovers talk.) What I’m saying, again, is that for me to find the film not just good, but great, I needed a moment to reflect over, that allowed me to lie in bed at night, chewing over the film’s content, thinking of the world (or art, for that matter) in a new way. The Wolf of Wall Street basically said: People are exactly as horrible as you think they are. Here, allow me to beat you over the head with that fact.