From its earliest beginnings, Hollywood has been a beacon of excessiveness — its a part of its marrow. You want spectacle? You want entertainment? Oh, they’ve got it brother and in spades. Whatever your fancy - guns ablazing, jokes a-yuking, or romance as thick as syrup, they’ll serve it on a tray. They are candy-makers and their sweets have only gotten sweeter.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little dessert to go with a steady diet of soulful meat and potatoes art, but it doesn’t take a cynic to realize that the majority of theater patrons are only eating from the cookie jar. Excess calls for more excess and, when tolerances are built up, new confections are required to tame the sweet tooth. Explosions must be bigger. Sex must be hotter and the ever indulgent cycle of creating entertainment for entertainment’s sake holds no end. Good or bad, it is the nature of this particular beast.
But 2013 signaled Hollywood’s pot truly calling the kettle black when two feature films (with the same star no less) attempted an examination of excess and stumbled all the way to their end credits drunk on their own filmatic overindulgences — Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
Welcome to the Party Old Sport!
In 1923, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive living while renting a humongous villa in the French Mediterranean with his wife Zelda. In 2013, Warner Brothers released an adaptation of The Great Gatsby and continued its legacy of storytelling contradictions by showcasing the drama in one of filmmaking’s most shiny of excesses — 3D projection. Why? Because why not?
At the story’s core, we still have Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DeCaprio as a sort of other-worldly host to the madness) living in the shadows, desiring something more, and paying the ultimate price due to his unreachable ideals of love. But the film’s attempt at emphasizing the bleakness of overindulgence pales when in contrast to its own filmmaking. It’s like an alcoholic slurring that you’ve got a drinking problem.
Helmed by Baz Luhrmann, the Michael Bay of glitter, the wide shots are extra wide, the slow motion extra slow, and the roaring twenties roars from sub woofers to a fusion of Will.i.am and The Charleston in a never ending montage of extravagance akin to a Gap commercial. The amount of special effect shots in this simple human drama could rival the most marvelous of Marvel movies. Gatsby is almost a pantomime of the type of dramatic theatre once done in front of the camera, when people only knew how to play to the back of theatre halls and its boldness feels like just another layer of artifice — an extra line of icing on an already nauseatingly rich cake.
And Gatsby can’t have that cake and eat it too. While film is always an attempt at recreating some form of genuine emotion, an audience can’t connect to characters that, even at their most honest, are so pumped full of filmmaking technique and effect that the bloat overpowers their humanity. Such excess leaves one with a dizzying sense of confusion as the attempt at telling such a morality tale fades into the blur of the entire lush production.
The Party Stops When He Says It Stops
Released at Christmas, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street takes the concept of excess and runs at it like a bat out of hell. More annoyed than concerned with the ethical implications of having too much, Wolf is the antithesis to Gatsby’s even feeble attempts to seek out truth beyond extravegence. This isn’t another Wall Street. It’s what ivy league business majors dream about in reaction to seeing Wall Street—screaming from the rooftops that greed isn’t just good…it’s great!
Unlike Gatsby, Wolf is excessive less in its visual aesthetics and more in its overall demeanor. The protagonist, Jordan Belfort (a now wild eyed DiCaprio), certainly doesn’t have the same gloss and veneer as Jay Gatsby. He’s an animal, pure and simple, and the story lets him roam the velts of New York, mating and hunting at his whim with little lasting consequence. Even his penance is just another way for him to make a buck. In fact, Wolf’s overall assessment of excess is that it’s a shame the world doesn’t allow for more of it because everyone would be happier. If the actual moral is the opposite than it’s going about it in the post-modern of ways.
Beyond the story, Wolf clocks in at three hours and is Scorsese’s longest movie. It shows. The scenes are drawn out like some sort of first cut, promising on delivering, but expounding on nothing. At least ten minutes are given to Belfort, high on Qualuudes, crawling on his belly to his car. We laugh. We watch. We laugh again and then we watch….and watch.
But length isn’t the only overload. Wolf has been notorious in the news for having to cut down on its nudity and sex to not receive an NC-17 rating and what have been left is still the hardest of possible R’s. There is certainly artistic and storydriven reasons for full frontal nudity, but when Wolf takes on such moments it never focuses the narrative, just adds to the distractions and eventually the monotony.
Famous anchorman Ron Burgundy said it best as he winced into a glass of scotch…
The lack of even this sort of denial is what makes Wolf whimper. It doesn’t know that the party (or film) has to resolve. It doesn’t realize that the people (and audience) tire as it orders another round of shots. It doesn’t let up and confirms that even the most white knuckle of roller-coasters can grow routine if rode for hours on end.
So as 2013 wraps up and the theater-goers grab their coats from the bedroom, we’re left cleaning the dishes and aknowledging that Hollywood’s very nature, or at least some its more modern techniques, may make it the least likely of candidates to discuss the concept of excessivness. For what sort of animal bites the hand that feeds it?