The Wolf of Wall Street: Scorcese’s Fall to Mediocrity

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This movie was hard for me to watch. Not because it’s long, not because it’s sexually graphic, but because it’s so mediocre. The film is singular, devoid of the complexity we’ve grown to appreciate in a Scorcese film, and devoid of a protagonist who we care about. I don’t mean that the protagonist has to be a good person; Henry Hill was not a good person, but we cared about him. The same can be said for Travis Bickle, Howard Hughes, Jake LaMotta, and most other Scorcese protagonists. None of them were necessarily good people, or sympathetic people, but they were all interesting people, and that’s what made them characters that the audience can care about. Which leads me to my first point: Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is boring. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m sure up until the point he got sent to jail his life was exciting, full of booze, drugs, sex, and money. But as a character and as a person he’s fucking boring. There’s nothing new about the character of Belfort that we haven’t seen a million times before. All he is is Henry Hill with a bit of experience from Gordon Gecco.

But, unlike Jordan, at least Henry Hill’s story was interesting and insightful. We were shown one of the more realistic views of a world that few of us will ever get to see. We see a man dealing with the conflicts of two worlds that he must juggle: that of his family and that of his “family.” Jordan, as I said above, has none of this. His greed and love of drugs and sex is unbounded by any real conflicts. If he gets caught cheating, he’s forgiven. There’s nothing and no one impeding his drug use. And his punishment for everything he’s done is nothing more than a few years in prison, only to come out and be just as rich and successful before. Yes, fine, his wife left near the end of the movie, but between the hookers and the money and everything else, I think he’ll manage to get over it. On a final point, the worst part of the character is the complete lack of character development. He tells us right in the beginning that he arrived on Wall Street as a greedy bastard. We see a few scenes of him at his first firm, timid as a mouse while talking to his boss who raked in $1 million last year. Then he goes to Long Island and instantly becomes this loud, obnoxious big shot. All it took was one good day at work and his first puff of crack, generously offered by his friend Donnie (Jonah Hill). And that’s it, nothing about him changes from that point. Like I said, he’s boring and singular. This leads me to my next point, the story is as singular as the character.

The movie is basically three hours long, and about two and a half hours of the movie are dedicated to showing the ridiculous escapades of this man. Partying at work, partying at a club, partying on his yacht, partying back at work, oh wait let’s quickly show how he sent money to Switzerland, okay back to the partying. There’s no variety here, the entire movie tries to stay on this emotionally thrilling high with no tempo or changes of pace. two-thirds of the way into the movie, I just couldn’t give a shit anymore. I started playing a game of guessing whether he’ll be snorting cocaine or swallowing quaaludes in the next scene because that’s basically the entire movie. Seriously, look at the poster at the top of this article: that’s the movie. A bunch of guys acting moronically and getting rich followed by more partying and idiocy.

This film was not what I expect from Scorcese. Some argue that he’s not what he used to be, and after seeing The Departed and Shutter Island, I was starting to agree (seriously, The Departed was almost entirely a shot for shot remake of Infernal Affairs, the latter being a much more cohesive and overall better film). But then the man stunned me with Hugo and I was back on the Scorcese train, but this film is not one I want to be riding with.

I’ll give the movie some credit, some scenes I loved, and some were quite funny and witty. Watching Jordan try to function after downing a handful of some older, more powerful quaaludes, then trying to stop Donnie from talking on the wiretapped phone was great. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that the rest of the movie was just the same shit over and over again. I honestly don’t care about the amount of sex shown, I know that’s a complaint that some people had, but I’m totally fine with a voluminous use of sex, as long as it’s used well, but this did nothing for me except remind me of all the better movies I could have been watching like, say, Margin Call or Goodfellas or Casino or ¬†Glenngarry Glen Ross or even Trading Places for something lighter. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to watch one of these fine films just so I can see something that didn’t have me on the verge of sleep halfway through.

If you want to see this film just for the sake of seeing this film, go ahead, but I wouldn’t spend my money on seeing it in theaters. This movie is wholly undeserving of $14. It’s not good, and it’s not so bad that it’s good. It’s right smack in the middle full of mediocrity, singularity, and dullness. On the bright side, with the Oscars right around the corner, there are much better nominated films that you can spend your money on.

12 Years a Slave: There is no Moral Relativism

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You know you’re in for a powerful film when within the first few minutes you find yourself pleading with the screen for the very thing not to happen that you know will inevitably happen. You see Solomon sign up to perform for a traveling circus, and you instantly start yelling to yourself “DON’T TRUST THEM, YOU DON’T KNOW THEM! AND DON’T LEAVE THE FUCKING STATE, DON’T DO IT!” That’s what went through my head in the opening scenes of 12 Years a Slave. The inevitability of what happens is in the god damn title, and I still found myself begging with the screen that the outcome is otherwise. That’s when I knew I was in for something special. But, that’s not what I want to talk about today. Yes, the movie is gripping, yes the acting is impeccable from everyone (though Benedict Cumberbatch was horribly underused), yes, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a strong contendor for the best acting Oscar along with Matthew McConaughey and Joaquin Phoenix, but the real magic of the film was how it addressed the question of moral relativism.

There are characters in this movie who are undoubtedly good, and there are characters who are undoubtedly evil. But then we’re presented with a slew of characters and situations that find themselves in a moral gray area, and are presented with the question of whether or not these are good people. Do we forgive their actions because of the times they find themselves in or is an act that is purely evil inexcusable regardless of whether the society you live in condones it.

The first time this question is presented to us is through Solomon’s first own, Master Ford. Master Ford was Solomon’s first owner and is portrayed like an all around decent human being. He listens to Solomon when he suggested transporting the lumber through the river instead of by land, he gifts Solomon with a violin, and he tries to protect Solomon when a white man swears to kill him. But he is a slave owner. This is the exact argument that Solomon ends up having with another slave on Ford’s plantation. Solomon tells her that Ford is a good man and if they stay quiet they can survive without harm being done to them. He suggests to survive until there is an opportunity for freedom. She replies, “Ford is your freedom? You don’t think he knows that you are more than you suggest? But he does nothing for you, nothing. You are no better than prized livestock. Call for him, tell him of your previous circumstances and see what it earns you, Solomon.” It is a powerful moment, and rings true enough to hurt because we hope she is wrong, and know she is right. Her point is validated on the last night that Solomon is with Ford. Ford tells Solomon that he can no longer protect Solomon from his attackers and gave him to another plantation owner where he will be “safe.” Solomon makes a desperate attempt to tell Ford of his previous life, to which Ford replies that he cannot hear these things, that he has a $1000 debt. Ford seemed a decent man. He did not intentionally harm his slaves. He listened to the concerns of his slaves. But he owned slaves, and that’s the moral theme of the film. No matter how good a man may seem, he cannot truly be a good man when he is in the business of owning another human being. He may be a better man than Master Epps (Michael Fassbender, but being better is not equivalent to being good.

There is a second moment that stuck with me particularly, and that is when Master Epps forced Solomon to whip Patsey. At first Solomon he attempts to do it as lightly as possible. Maybe he thinks that if he fakes the whipping, she won’t receive a worse whipping from Epps. But then Epps approaches him and says that if Solomon does not whip her properly, he will kill Solomon and every other slave on the farm. At this point Solomon begins to whip her mercilessly, forcing the audience to watch as horrible lacerations form on Patsey’s back. So again there is a question here, of whether it is moral for a person to torture another person if it means he saves his own life or, even more so, it means he saves the lives of many. It is a complicated question, a question that has reverberates to current events, and a question that audience members must decide for ¬†themselves. I will only say that if the theme of the film is consistent, then there is no moral relativism. An individual’s bad acts are not justified by the otherwise good actions of that individual. We can say that Ford was a better person than Epps, but it is wholly different to say that Ford was a good person. We can say that Solomon had to make a difficult decision, but the difficulty of the decision does not decide whether the decision was good or bad, only that it was difficult.

One of the more interesting characters in the movie is Bass (Brad Pitt), a freelancer from Canada, who spends some time working on Epps’ farm to make some money. Epps and Bass end up conversing about the nature of slavery after Epps offers Bass some water and Bass comments about the condition of Epps’ other laborers. Epps tells Bass that it is a fact that they are not laborers, but his slaves, his property, with which he can do what he pleases. Bass responds the only way one can respond in such a situation, “This conversation concerns what is factual and what is not. Then it must be said that there is no justice or righteousness in this slavery… suppose they pass a law taking away your liberty. Suppose.” I won’t transcribe the entire conversation, but it is a powerful one that brings home the entire message of the film. Truth, justice, and righteousness are constants; they do not change based on the times, nor do they change simply because a law says they do.

I urge you all to see this film. There is no moral relativism.