"One thing [American Hustle] is not a Scorsese film. You are a classic stranger writer. Rip on everything, like nothing., unless your friends say so. I really liked the film. All I can say again Classic Stranger. You fit right in.
Welcome to our town, Douche!!!!"
—entirety of an e-mail to me from a fan named Martin, 12/27/2013.
In my very positive review of American Hustle, I said that David O. Russell had created a film that feels like a response to a Scorsese movie, focusing on the characters running around in the background of Casino or Goodfellas while the big-time mobsters do their business. Hustle borrows heavily from Scorsese's visual vocabulary and common thematic elements to tell what is ultimately a more personal, more sentimental story than Scorsese usually attempts.
At the same time that Russell was putting out an entertaining Scorsese riff, Scorsese was putting the finishing touches on the best movie he's made in decades. I'm not surprised that The Wolf of Wall Street is having a hard time gaining acceptance with the moviegoing masses. (Erik Henriksen's review of The Wolf of Wall Street , by the way, is right-on.) People become uneasy when they sense that they're being made fun of, and this movie is making fun of us. It's a dark comedy that takes aim directly at that most precious of American beliefs, articulated best in the popular misquote commonly attributed to John Steinbeck:
Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.
The millionaires in The Wolf of Wall Street aren't embarrassed in any sense of the word, but they are embarrassing. They're the crassest, neediest, basest pieces of shit you'll ever see. Their only religion is excess. They're not obsessed with their own desires, they're obsessed with owning what everyone else desires. If you think for a minute that Martin Scorsese is glorifying the Wall Street lifestyle in this movie, if you identify with any of these characters, the chances are good that you're a horrible person.
The Wolf of Wall Street is aimed directly at everything that is disgusting about America: The propensity to look the other way when the wealthy commit crimes, the libertarian belief that the market knows best, the confusion of wealth and value, the willingness of the wealthiest one percent to prey on everyone else's shaky financial statuses, the arrogant belief that we are exceptional just because we're American. It's a movie that is excessive in its desire to depict excess. The dozens of bacchanalias that you see on screen do overpower your senses. Eventually, all the drug-taking, sex, and wild partying becomes boring. That's the point. Anyone who thinks that The Wolf of Wall Street should be an hour shorter doesn't understand what the movie is about. It's not about punishing the protagonist, it's about punishing the viewer.
This is not to say that The Wolf of Wall Street is humorless. It's very funny. It's got some brilliant, sure-to-be-iconic physical comedy. The characters are hilariously vain, and completely unaware of how they present to everyone else. It's a Scorsese movie through and through, but the tone and the humor feels slightly different from every other film he's made. There's only one other director I can think of who could've pulled this movie off, and that other director's fingerprints are all over this film. It's hard not to imagine his ghost sitting on top of the camera in every scene, chuckling at everything he sees. Who would've thought that while David O. Russell was busy making a Scorsese film, Scorsese would at the same time be occupying himself with making a Kubrick film?