I don’t watch much of a variety of films. I tend to stick to mainstream ‘genre’ cinema and have built up a nice comfort zone over the years. So ‘The Big Short’ and ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ are films that I’d never usually watch. But from an interview with director Adam McKay on Den Of Geek I got a sense of the film’s tone of liberal-leaning indignation, which I always enjoy thanks to an upbringing of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. And after the two-hour education in the 2008 US housing market crash, I decided to continue the theme and give ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ a viewing too, which I already knew wasn’t my thing whatsoever and still isn’t. In fact, I was surprised to find that the film that fit the comedy genre more was the one directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the one with the potent political commentary came from the director of ‘Anchorman’. If you’ve not seen either, try and guess which one has midgets being thrown into giant dartboards and public masturbation.
This isn’t to say one film is definitively better than the other. ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ is an adaption of real-life stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name, so acts as an exposé of one example of the indulgent Wall Street lifestyle. It’s presented, certainly compared to the overtly political ‘The Big Short’, without judgement, giving the audience credit enough to come to the conclusion of whether a wife-beating criminal who defrauds innocent people is a bad man. McKay’s film swings the opposite way; we are clearly meant to be on the side of those appalled by the broken system. It’s even slightly patronising in its moments of exposition, where celebrities will pop up as themselves to explain some of the denser jargon. But this is because this is an angry film, determined to get its point across however it can to a public who ignored the reasons behind the crash the first time around. The final moments go to lengths to emphasise how little has changed within the banking system and nearly everyone involved has escaped justice. Whereas ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ has a tone of laughing disbelief at an individual’s lifestyle, ‘The Big Short’ has one of fury at a corrupt system that led to disaster for innocent people.
I don’t see the appeal for stories about indulgence in drugs, money and sex that don’t go into the motivations behind it, but clearly there’s an audience because ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ got a healthy number of Oscar nominations. The one that puzzled me most was best director for Martin Scorsese – I couldn’t count how many scenes there were of people sitting at tables going back and forth between mid-shots of each character for their dialogue. And if fifteen-minute sequences of drug-induced stumbling is all it takes for a Best Actor nomination, maybe Leo shouldn’t be too troubled by his lack of a win so far. The one enjoyably original moment was when DiCaprio is visited by an FBI agent who’s investigating his company, and their hostile attitudes are played with an open, friendly jocularity. Aside from that, it’s too much of a scandal story without enough exploration of motive to be truly engaging. At the beginning DiCaprio’s Belfort is an apparently honest and genuine broker looking to help his customers as much as he is to make his own fortune. But as chunks of time are skimmed over, he’s suddenly selling worthless stock to unsuspecting clients for thousands of dollars and cheating on his wife with fervour. By not doing enough, they might as well have taken out the depth to his character completely. A depiction of Belfort as an amoral bastard would be fine considering the tone of the film, if it weren’t for the puzzling early counterpoint of him as a genuine guy with no segue into his later seediness.
‘The Big Short’, while certainly not a character-driven piece, does a little better. Steve Carrell is given some time to explore his character’s grief over a brother’s suicide, with only minor indications that it was because of financial trouble. In fact, unless you pick up on the subtle hints linking it to the film’s central theme, it seems extraneous other than to give Carrell fuel to burn his anger at the broken system. Whether based on a real incident or not, it was probably given focus to add some context to the effects for ordinary people. Apart from this piece of backstory, the characters are kept at a distance. The way that they’ll turn to the camera to correct historical inaccuracies the film presents is almost Brechtian, reminding us that although the story is real, these people we see in front of us are not. This, along with some creative editing giving more historical context, makes a far more convincing case for McKay’s Best Director nomination. Additionally, Christian Bale has a stronger performance than DiCaprio’s Belfort, although has justifiably been given a Best Supporting Actor nomination – the film is split fairly evenly between the four big names of Bale, Carrell, Gosling and Pitt. His savant hedge fund manager who sees the clues before anyone else (you just know Benedict Cumberbatch was somewhere on the producers’ prospective casting list) is eccentric, yet played naturalistically. He’s given some depth too, with a flashback to being humiliated at school for having a glass eye, and a cute anecdote about how he met his wife. Again though, this seems irrelevant to the story being told and serves only to set Bale apart as an outsider from the cool suits of the banking world – of the film’s description of the characters as ‘weirdos’, he’s the only one who really fits the description.
Despite the differing levels of originality evident in the two films’ executions, ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ holds up as the better piece of art, simply because it doesn’t tell you what to think. It simply presents its interpretation of events and characters and leaves you to have your own reaction (as obvious as an audience’s reaction might seem, I know at least one person who loved the film because he wanted to live it). ‘The Big Short’ on the other hand, is a completely one-sided view of events, even if those events are presented accurately. It tells you those involved in the highest levels of the system are criminals and that it is an outrage that they have escaped justice. It just so happens to be a view shared by the majority. So ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’ may technically be better art, but ‘The Big Short’ is the more important film.