Almost eleven years ago I wrote a complaint piece about the “tedious” and “narcotizing” pronouncements of box-office analyst Paul Dergerabedian (formerly of Exhibitor Relations and Media By Numbers, currently with Rentrak). At the time Dergarabedian was the default quote guy among the big-time industry reporters (New York Times‘ Rick Lyman, USA Today‘s Scott Bowles, AP’s Dave Germain) when they wrote their Monday morning box-office stories. I said that Dergarabedian’s “almost oppressively mundane” analysis was driving me insane.
I’m not saying that In Contention‘s Kris Tapley is the new Dergarabedian. His film reviews and award-season analysis pieces over the years have always been greater in scope and have cut much deeper than mere box-office analysis, and I respect his comment that “few [seem to] have really gotten into the formal elements of the film, lost in a fog of their own farts.” But I got a faint whiff of that old Dergarabedian blandness when I read his 12.29 Hitfix piece called “Wolf of Wall Street Dispute Reminds Us That Martin Scorsese Is No Stranger To Controversy.”
My main issue is that by using the words “controversy” and “dust-up”…let me start again. Tapley is a very careful wordsmith, I realize, but to my ears “controversy” and “dust-up” suggest that by having directed The Wolf of Wall Street in a manic, drug-crazed style that seems to not only depict but revel in the ruthless pharmaceutical debauchery of Jordan Belfort‘s life in the late ’80s and ’90s, Scorsese has stepped on some kind of land mine that is delivering a certain negative blowback. That’s true if you define “negative blowback” as a result of having made a first-rate film that some people are too stiff-necked or out-to-lunch to really “understand the music” of, but, as Jake La Motta might have put it, that’s in their mind, not Scorsese’s. (And I’m not talking about Hope Holiday’s disdain for Scorsese’s film — that sentiment has had its day in court.) The Wolf of Wall Street is far less of a misunderstood film than a balls-out masterpiece that swan-dives right into the adrenalized bloodstream of a stock-market sociopath. Some people want a film to handle like a brand new Lexus, smooth and reassuring, and have zero interest in a film that tears around like a Formula One race car. I get that. I also realize that roughly a quarter of the critics out there don’t hold with my awestruck opinion, but that’s not my idea of a controversial dust-up. That’s my idea of “76% of us get it and the other 24% basically don’t” — no offense.
I’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street three times, and I’m familiar enough with Belfort’s actual history to know that there isn’t as much exaggeration in Scorsese’s film as some might think. But the film is obviously cranked on adrenaline and has been Scorsese’d all to hell, and if the result isn’t a form of satire…well, it is, okay? Yes, I realize that Scorsese himself has said it’s not intended as satire, but no one is going to tell me that Wolf is dealing in level-playing-field naturalism. The quaalude sequence alone with its use of Jerry Lewis– or Jim Carrey-level physical slapstick (that fight between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill for control of the kitchen phone is classic) and the Popeye clips analogizing spinach and cocaine plus that glass table exploding into pieces as Hill chokes to death on a couple of slices of ham…c’mon, man! And in the face of this Tapley writes “I think the film clearly deals heavily in satire”? He thinks it does?
Never trust the artist — trust the tale.
And then comes the coup de grace. “I don’t think The Wolf of Wall Street is the great masterpiece some of my colleagues do,” Tapley opines, “and I certainly don’t think it’s the abysmal, misshapen joke others do.” Again — why describe such opinions (there’s no way to call a film as obviously crackling and audacious as The Wolf of Wall Street “abysmal” or “misshapen” without calling your brain-cell count into question) as the semi-reasonable views of the loyal opposition? Why offer a false equivalency? It’s like saying “on the other hand climate-change deniers believe that the same extreme weather patterns have been with us since the dawn of history and are part of the natural cycle.”
“I think [WoWS is] somewhere in between,” Tapley finally says, “clearly made by an analytical artist with something to say” but (and I love this) “at three hours, somehow [with] not enough time to say it.” The Wolf of Wall Street is an epic, and one of the most tightly edited, fast-moving three hour films ever made. And all of a piece. It isn’t cut like a 90-minute or a 120-minute film that happens to run too long. It’s cut like a three-hour film with ants in the pants. It races from start to finish. I honestly can’t think of anything that could or should have been cut. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been three and a half. Trust me — “somewhere in between” is the one thing in the world that The Wolf of Wall Street is not. Nor was it ever intended to be.
“The Wolf Of Wall Street is not a subtle movie, nor is it a quiet one,” writes TechnologyTell.com’s Sean Burns. “There is a glory in this rage that borders on magisterial. Marty’s patented long, crazy camera movements are orchestrated flawlessly with the jukebox soundtrack, and did I mention that he thinks these characters are disgusting?
“[And then] Scorsese flips the mirror on that final shot. We in the theatre are left facing ourselves in an onscreen reflection, slack-jawed and fawning over Belfort’s continued antics – the past three hours become acid reflux. It takes two to tango, and there’s one of us born every minute.”
Longtime Scorsese colleague Paul Schrader has recently posted the following on Facebook: “I just sent Marty an email, said congrats, must feel great to still be pissing people off at the age of 71.”