Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Minor Spoilers

When my screening of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET concluded, I sat with some wildly conflicted emotions. I felt bewildered, exhilarated, exhausted. It was tough to decide if I "liked" this highly anticipated movie. My initial thoughts were either Martin Scorsese created one of the best pictures of his career or one of the worst. It was difficult to tell.  Certainly the messiest, perhaps the most so since CASINO.  After several days of bouncing WOLF around my head, I find that all of the above have strong defenses.

I often use the word "audacious" when describing movies.  The word so perfectly describes Scorsese's three hour assault, this often grotesque circus that wallows in the debauchery of Jordan Belfort's (the real life anihero of the film's title) lifestyle.  If you've read about the film, you've learned that there are multiple scenes of excessive behavior.  Battalions of naked revelers (male and female) partying in every imaginable position.  Mounds of cocaine defying gravity into many of the main characters' noses. There are more Quaaludes in this film than probably any other in history.

Belfort, a convicted stock market swindler who made millions off both high rollers and the common man with fraudulent penny stocks, had already inspired 2002's BOILER ROOM, a mostly forgettable flick, aside from a scene where the young turks chant along with Michael Douglas while they watch 1987's WALL STREET. You recall the iconic "greed is good" speech.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in another bravura turn and his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, plays Belfort and gets his own Gordon Gekko diatribe late in WOLF, a lengthy apologia for his shady methodology, his large living, his unbridled materialism. The case is laid out to his employees (and the film's audience) the same way he silver tongues those clueless schmendricks on the telephone as he peddles inflated shares.  Unrepentant to the end.

So is Scorsese, who has no apparent mea culpa for his very long parade, his over-the-top burlesque that, like other such filmic grandiosities, makes most of its points early on and then plays the record again. And again. The challenge here is to determine whether the entire thing is merely a "3 hour jerk off" as one critic so aptly described, or an epic that is necessarily lurid, an underlined in red cautionary tale.

But other than some curiously unflattering camera angles and a Voice of Conscience via Jordan's first wife, the director does not cast judgment. He observes, and orchestrates with his usual mastery of cinematic technique. The fast zooms, slow motion, extreme close-up of inaminate objects in motion, razor sharp editing. He does not cue us to damn his protagonist. This is no morality play.  Some viewers may take this as an endorsement of the lifestyle depicted.  A group of young guys at my showing were cheering Belfort's less-than-exemplary actions throughout the movie. To them, the guy was some sort of hero, it seemed. While consequences are shown in the later passages of WOLF, as the FBI closes in and spouses are lost, the final scene brings Belfort back front and center, training a new group of would-be wolves.

Many (who are not already Scorsese disciples) will understandably wonder if the time investment for this movie is worthwhile. If watching the behind the door activities of a brash, amoral capitalist gone berserk who might rightly be termed a world class douchebag will add anything to their lives. I would finally say that it will, that there is something valuable here, that this relentless ride is worth taking, that it is never dishonest. The subject, while interesting, is mired in an unsavory pattern of sin, and I certainly wouldn't want to be around him or his brood. But here as in so many other films, what's valuable is the Method, the storytelling, the themes and allusions.  The art.

About that: Scorsese, as mentioned, sports his unmistakable flash, though along with it is an unfortunate sense of deja vu.  Again we have the eclectric soundtrack, songs used for their commentary to a scene as much as for their coolness factor (note Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge"; this would be at least the second time the director has used a track of theirs).  This also includes Belfort's front to back narration, similar in many ways to Ray Liotta's in GOODFELLAS (DiCaprio even sounds like him at times).  Belfort and Henry Hill do in fact tell similar based on truth tales, perhaps what in part attracted Scorsese to this project. Belfort baldly explains his devil may care viewpoint, cynically explaining that money doesn't only finance hookers and blow and midgets to be tossed at targets for sport, but can also be given to the church or the charity of your choice. Just like the Mob does.

 Belfort's firm, Stratton Oakmont is in fact similar to the Mafia in a few respects. They take care of their own.  Note a teary testimonial from a female employee during Jordan's big speech. Loyalty is key. Not ratting out your colleagues is paramount; this will be explored during the film's climax. But unlike in other Scorsese films, there is no violence to speak of in WOLF.  It's the one element absent form this inexplicably R-rated motion picture.

There is a lot of humor. How funny you find this movie depends on your tolerances and sensibilities. I enjoyed the scenes where several characters' thoughts are audible, and a quick moment during Belfort's first telephone penny pitch at the low level shopping center boiler room, the cutaway showing what that alleged corporation the broker hawks really looks like.  Much of the laughter in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET comes (at least for me) from the recognition of going for broke. So desperate, so believing you're in control and failing miserably. The constant drug use provides what is sure to be considered a classic sequence: Jordan's "Lemmon" Quaaludes finally kick in (he didn't realize they were timed release) causing a (not so much for him) memorable drive home and a kitchen struggle with his business partner, Donnie (Jonah Hill, quite good). The scene is pathetic, sad, and hilarious. One moment really sums it up: when Donnie falls to the floor, choking on a cold cut, Jordan has to take a hit of cocaine to get the energy to get up and perform the Heimlich.

There is probably a really solid, perfectly honed movie to be whittled out of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Maybe a 2 hour pic.  That's the problem; there's too much fat, wayyyy too many sex scenes, too many wild moments that become didactic and even dull. Even if the reality of Belfort's life was worse than this film, artistic judgment should've known when to pull in the reigns. With that, I might have left out that scene where Donnie becomes so aroused by his first meeting of Belfort's future bride, Naomi (Margot Robbie) that he visibly whips out his member and begins masturbating in front of party guests.  Also, a flashback with the Belforts' homosexual butler and his unauthorized orgy.  Gratuitous. To think that Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker originally pieced together a 4 hour edit?! This is one "Director's Cut" I'm not necessarily anticipating.

I would've happily traded the endless shenanigans for more character development (though no performance can be faulted, including Matthew McConaughey, seen all too briefly early on) and some deeper analysis of stock market mechanics. The first hour of CASINO and much of GOODFELLAS excelled with their breathless explanations of their respective characters' trades, fascinating nuts and bolts play by plays that deepened our understanding of their larcenous worlds. Worlds that share more than a little with the Market. Here, other than a recurring lesson in how to sell, we get precious little. Even TRADING PLACES taught us more about Wall Street!

But THE WOLF OF WALL STREET does include a lengthy, emblematic, perfectly realized scene as Jordan Belfort, scoring his first big sale at Stratton, convinces a reluctant client over the phone to buy some near worthless shares. As the scene unfolds, the broker and his cronies are sneering, pointing middle fingers, and high fiving around the desk. It probably says everything about what has been wrong with our coveted system for some time.

And for all this film's problems, Scorsese again demonstrates why I love the movies.
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