Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler, Margot Robbie, Jon Bernthal

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is arguably the third film in director Martin Scorsese’s loose trilogy of films chronicling the rise and fall of big-time criminals*. Since that puts it in the company of GOODFELLAS and CASINO, it’s automatically a pretty big deal. And when you combine that pedigree with the fact that it’s centered around the ripped-from-the-headlines story of an unscrupulous Wall Street trader who defrauds millions of people in order to finance his opulent lifestyle, well, you’ve got a movie with a lot of baggage before you even see frame one. Oh, and did I mention that it’s 179 minutes? That’s a minute longer than CASINO, or THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING! Lotta pressure on this one simply by virtue of being what it is.

But weirdly, the film is exactly the opposite of the dour, portentous morality tale you’re probably imagining. Instead, it’s a manic, outrageous comedy of excess, less interested in taking a moral stand against predatory bankers than it is in wallowing in the fun of being an irresponsible asshole with unlimited resources. You may find that an unconscionable artistic choice, but you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it is, indeed, a whole shitload of fun, at least for a while. Your tolerance for 179 minutes of it may be directly tied to just how much you’d like to A) be like this so called “wolf” Jordan Belfort or B) punch him in his kidneys.

At the beginning, though, it’s kinda impossible not to get swept up in Scorsese’s kinetic, irreverent plunge into this world of obscene excess. The film starts with quick visual catalogue of the current holdings of one Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, CRITTERS 3): he’s introduced zooming down the highway in his 1) Lamborghini (red at first, it changes to white as Belfort corrects our assumption of it’s color, pointing out that it’s white “like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice”) to his 2) enormous sprawling mansion in what he claims is the most expensive real estate in North America (the World?) while 3) receiving oral sex from 4) statuesque blonde Australian soap opera star Margot Robbie. It plays like a parody, but I guess it must at least be somewhat true, because it’s based on this dude’s real-life autobiography.**

Let me show you a magic disappearing trick.

The thing you need to know about Jordan Belfort, is that he’s a complete and total fucking asshole, just the worst person ever. His big rise to power came from taking huge commissions by selling worthless penny stocks to gullible poor people who trusted him to try and help them with their retirement. He never even pretends to care about the people he’s bilking for millions, or even the businesses whose stocks he’s manipulating. In fact, he’s actually surprisingly honest about his only goal, which is to get as rich and depraved as humanly possible, as quickly as possible. And it works; the more shameless he gets, the quicker his own personal stock rises with the like-minded assholes on Wall Street. And the richer he gets, the more positively Caligulan his lifestyle becomes. Soon, copious drug use, S & M prostitutes, pet chimpanzees, Swiss bank accounts, luxury yachts, personal helicopters, trophy wives, dwarf tossing, sisterfucking, anally fisting soldiers, and appointing a horse to the Roman Senate*** all become par for the course.

The thing is, though, that Terence Winter’s witty script and DiCaprio’s go-for-broke performance are so goddam entertaining that even though you know in your rational mind that this guy Belfort is a lowlife scumbag, you sort of root for him anyway. Like any socially irresponsible maniac in the movies, as much as we may despise his actions we’re always going to prioritize our enjoyment of his antics over our judgement of his character. Like his portrayal of gangsters in GOODFELLAS and CASINO, Scorsese doesn’t especially offer judgement on Belfort’s character, and I think to a certain degree even admires the ambition, energy, and ingenuity the guy shows in his quixotic quest to consume all resources on Earth by himself. There is less emphasis on the minuteia of the job than we get in the mob movies (in fact, several times Belfort even begins to explain what he’s up to directly to the camera, only to stop and gleefully conclude that we won’t understand and the only important thing is that it’s illegal and lucrative), but more emphasis on the bizarre cult of personality that Belfort inspires. He gets several rallying-the-troops speeches which he delivers with roughly the same intensity as Leonidas in 300, and which generate nearly identical results (minus all the dead Greeks). Even though his motives and methods are odious and he personally is an aggressively despicable puerile git, I can’t help but feel that putting this character in the position of an dynamic, captivating protagonist does serve to glamorize him.

Yachts: the last, last refuge of a scoundrel.

I guess the question becomes, then are we OK with that? I mean, we didn’t really complain when Scorsese was doing the same thing with mobsters, who actually killed people. Lots of folks try to argue that those films are really morality plays, that show both the seductive nature of a life of crime and soberly document the inevitable downfall for those who try it. But I dunno, I don’t really see a whole lot of condemnation there at all. I think those movies are closer to Sideny Lumet’s FIND ME GUILTY, a hugely entertaining movie about a guy charming his way out of a shoulda-been-obvious guilty verdict for… ah, murder. That one got a quite a bit of criticism for its cheerful amoral take on the real-life trial, and, I would say, rightly so (even though I enjoyed it).

In all honesty, I don’t think it’s fair to say that just because these gangster films show characters to be objectively bad guys, they’re actually being critical of them. In fact, I think Scorsese is at the very least equally impressed with these men as he is repulsed by them. WOLF OF WALL STREET doesn’t seem particularly different; I think Scorsese (like Tarantino, to some degree) is always more interested in a great story than he is in the messy aspects real life. Crime is a particularly cinematic thing to structure a story around, and often includes ballsy, clever and larger-than-life characters who we naturally like to watch on film, and hence sympathize with since it’s their perspective we’re following. To him it’s a story, it’s inherently fun and irreverent, it doesn’t really have anything to do with real people suffering in the real world.  Simply put: I don’t see a whole lot of condemnation in Scorsese’s portrayal of his characters, and moreover I think there’s quite a bit of glorification which comes out of giving them a bunch of funny lines, cool poses, and hip presentation.

So if we admit we’re OK with cool gangster characters, it would follow that we tacitly accept presenting these Wall Street guys as charismatic anti-heroes too. Bankers never killed anyone, after all (well, at least not in this movie. THE INTERNATIONAL tells a pretty different story). But still, even if his crimes were less individually heinous, Belfort probably ruined the lives of way more people than the gangsters in GOODFELLAS ever did. And more importantly, even though Belfort himself was in jail by the end of the 90’s, the kind of predatory financial practices he embodies and represents inflicted serious wounds on many families that are still very, very fresh. His particular brand of evil is still very much standard practice in the world today; nobody is really doing anything to stop people like him, and the problems seem to get worse and worse all the time. Is it really OK to make a film about how much fun he had doing it, which more or less celebrates his utter callousness and complete lack of remorse?

Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

And I guess my answer is that --for me, anyway-- yeah, it sort of is. Just as the FRIDAY THE 13th movies clearly favor Jason, just as PUNISHER allows us to root for a sociopathic killer, just as James Bond invites us to celebrate an all-out orgy of our most violent, misogynistic, fascist and colonialist impulses. And that’s OK, because they’re movies, and a movie isn’t real life. I condone all kinds of behavior in a movie in the interest of being entertained and perhaps even indulging some of my own worst qualities a little. If a guy as good at making movies as Scorsese is able to put objectively despicable characters on screen and make me like them and identify with them, good on him, he did an awesome job. It’s our job to be able to separate the emotional internal truth of a movie from the actual truth in the real world. If some assholes can’t manage that, it’s their fault for being ignorant fucktards, not Scorsese’s fault for providing bad role models. He’s allowed to tell us a story as morally bankrupt as he desires, and if he gets us to side with its protagonists, well, then he must be doing a fuckin’ great job of telling that story. Every film is not a moral lesson, nor should it be. But by the same token, let’s not go around pretending that his crime movies are stinging indictments of that amoral lifestyle from which we all learned a bunch of valuable lessons about the dangers of being a thieving degenerate. It wasn’t the case with his older movies, and I don’t buy that it is here, either. If you like these films (and I do!), you owe it to them to admit what they are, not try to defend them as something they’re not.

It’s complicated, though, because of course Belfort isn’t Freddy Krueger or Dirty Harry, he’s a real person who really did this in real life. His victims are still out there today, and he’s still way richer than you or I would be if we worked a real job a hundred years. So while I don’t begrudge Scorsese having fun by turning his story into an irresponsible, outrageous comedy, your mileage may vary depending on how much you can disconnect the things you’re seeing onscreen from real life. I don’t know how anyone could resist the hyperactive, kinetic comedy that Scorsese and DiCaprio bring to the table here, but even I started to feel a little uncomfortable after awhile, just by virtue of spending this much time with these loathsome crackers (I think the only black person in the entire film is Belfort's stereotypical housekeeper... what is this, THE HELP?). The movie’s a long and wild party, but at least for me, the post-party self-loathing starts to set in pretty quick. Oh jeez, did I really do all that? It seemed cool at the time but now I’m embarrassed.

The film’s biggest problem --and ultimately it’s most damning one-- isn’t really a moral one, though: it is that Jordan Belfort isn’t just a profoundly unappealing person, he’s also a pretty uninteresting one. He’s just a shallow, selfish asshole, there’s nothing really interesting about him at all when he’s not being a cartoonish parody. This isn’t a problem during the film’s first two hours, which maintain a coke-addled frantic energy with aplomb. But it starts to become a much bigger liability towards the end of the movie, as Belfort’s inevitable descent begins. Seeing him [spoiler] get divorced, clean up, rat out his friends… well, there’s just not much interesting drama here simply because he’s such a shallow bore. He’s not really conflicted or anything since he’s such a selfish piece of shit, and his relationships are all utterly superficial, so who really cares what happens to them? Suddenly we’re supposed to think he cares about his daughter? Not buying, not interested. There’s no reason to be invested in this character or his personal life, if for no other reason than we’ve never seen him really give a shit about anyone else.

Man, you can never seem to get some good old fashioned police brutality when you really need it.

So it’s a wildly fun film almost all the way through, but once the hilarious excess dries up towards the end, I feel like the film really suffers from not having anything interesting to say about the world it’s presenting, and especially about the human black hole at its center. Yes, people on Wall Street are greedy, megalomaniacal frat boys. That’s mildly interesting, but at 179 minutes the film eventually feels frustratingly one-note. Why bother to show us all this if we’re never going to explore what it means?

Near the middle of the film, FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler, What About Joan?) has an interesting line about how Belfort --unlike most of the Wall Street pricks he busts-- didn’t come from a long line of assholes, he seems to have come by it all by himself. But why? What kind of person does it take to turn into this sort of monster? How did it happen? The movie either isn’t interested in exploring this, or –and I think this is more likely– the answer is simply that he’s just a shallow, vain idiot who just happened to be shameless enough to succeed in greed. And uh, what’s the point in watching someone like that after they’ve ceased to do the ridiculous things that originally endeared them to us? The end of the movie wallows in Belfort’s personal implosion in a way which feels much more morose than the character has earned, so we’re both denied the pleasure of seeing him get his richly deserved comeuppance and, alternately, denied the slightly more questionable pleasure of watching this smarmy shitbag actually manage to weasel his way out of trouble (a la THANK YOU FOR SMOKING). It ends up making the whole experience feel a lot like Belfort’s life: decadent and eventful on the surface, but ultimately rather empty.

One other thing significantly missing here: any mention of Belfort’s victims. We know he’s taking millions from investors (many of them, at least at the beginning, working-class Joes just trying to scratch out some financial stability in their old age), but the only hint we ever get of them individually is an occasional tinny voice over a telephone, trying in vain to resist Belfort’s seductive hard sell. Belfort is openly contemptuous of them, and the movie doesn’t seem particularly more sympathetic. We never hear or see any evidence that anyone was actually hurt (though of course we have to assume they were) so our moral issues with Belfort really only occupy the same place he does: the surreal, aggressively insulated world of the egomaniacal ultra-rich. That world is good for a few laughs, but with no mention of the real-world damage Belfort and his ilk are doing, the stakes seem surprisingly low, more a matter of character than a matter of life-altering villainy. To the extent that its concern extends even this far, the movie seems more interested in judging Belfort’s greed and decadence, not the actual harm that he caused to vulnerable people. As I said, I’m not interested in condemning this movie on moral grounds, but the problem is that this is just one more aspect which makes the whole experience feel a bit trivial in spite of all the frenzied antics.

Hill auditions for the next HULK movie

Still, there’s a lot of stuff to like here. DiCaprio is pretty much always great in everything, but he really goes above and beyond for this character, throwing himself into the role with a comedic physicality that I never would have guessed would he a strength of his. The sequence where he attempts to return to his car while nearly paralyzed by quaaludes has to rank among the funniest of the year. Without being overly sympathetic to the character, he manages to find a vaguely likeable strand of restless energy and mad bravado which galvanizes the film and forces us to invest in the character even if we don’t exactly like him. The rest of the cast backs him up nicely: Jonah Hill ("dear God, it's me, Jonah Hill... from MONEYBALL?") is fearlessly unlikeable as Belfort’s second-in-command Donnie, a guy exactly as debauched but who lacks even Belfort’s few redeeming qualities in terms of charisma and vision. Margot Robbie plays his equally vapid trophy wife with sociopathic aplomb. There are a bunch of odd cameos from directors --Rob Reiner as Belfort’s Dad, Jon Favreau as his lawyer, Spike Jonze as a penny-stock salesman operating out of a strip mall-- and a menagerie of memorable character actors in smaller roles. And hey, you’ve even got Jon Bernthal (Shane from The Walking Dead) --a guy so badass they named the sequel to THE RAID after him-- as Belfort’s drug-dealing childhood buddy, who looks like a boy scout compared to his Wall Street peers.

The cast are all decidedly secondary to the Grand Guignol spectacle of excess, though, and that’s just fine. There are moments of crazy cinematic meta-jokes which evoke Oliver Stone in their brazen strangeness, most notably a scene where Belfort --inspired by a Popeye cartoon conveniently playing on a nearby TV-- snorts a box of cocaine to gain the strength and focus necessary to save his friend from choking on lunchmeat (long story). There’s an outrageous surplus of strange physical comedy, frenetic slapstick, over-the-top hysteria and drugged-out mayhem. Fittingly, Belfort’s narration is punctuated by period-accurate commercials for all the stuff he’s consuming (one of which unexpectedly and hilariously gets rudely interrupted by reality) leading to a disorienting but pleasing hodgepodge of chintzy postmodern layers. Scorsese has always had an intuitive eye for cinema and a willingness to push boundaries, but man, this is by far the most unhinged I’ve ever seen him. It’s a risky strategy, but it work: the first two-plus hours fly by, and the film remains inventive enough to prevent the non-stop orgy of exorbitance from becoming dull through repetition. Scorsese knows a thing or two about hard partying himself, and devilishly guides us through the subjective perspective of the drugged-up maniacs and back out into a decidedly more pathetic objective reality. Simply put: it’s funny. It works.

Some critics have been calling this a satire of the kind of Wall Street psychopaths who got our whole damn planet into the current mess. I’m not sure I exactly agree; while it’s definitely willing to have fun at their expense and completely happy to let their bad behavior speak for itself, I don’t detect much real moral panic in the tone of the film, and it’s just a little too energized by Belfort’s high-octane insanity to offer a convincing condemnation (particularly when it comes to the virulently casual sexism of the protagonists). For a movie about Wall Street skullduggery, if offers virtually nothing about the actual practice of shady stock manipulation and little sense what life is like outside this one particular firm. If there’s an overarching commentary on this particular slice of society --or even the society at large that let these wolves run wild-- I don’t really see it. But hey, we have MARGIN CALL for that, don’t we? Now we have this one to do something different: drag us along --sometimes against our will-- for the long, unbelievably outlandish irresponsible ride. Scorsese has always been more interested in drawing us into people’s exaggerated inner lives than he is in telling us what it all ought to mean, and WOLF OF WALL STREET is no exception. We’ll let other movies lecture us on why this is all bad karma. Scorsese is only interested in seeing how we’ll feel once we’ve lived through it. And just like any wolf that can’t stop gorging until the whole meal is gone, you’re likely to feel satiated, but also a little nauseated.


**The rights to that autobiography came to Leo after he won a bidding war with Brad Pitt. I first assumed these two ambitious lions of the cinema were fighting over who would play this role because they both hoped to try and embody the lightning-in-a-bottle story that could symbolize one of the defining moments of the decade. But then I noticed the scene where Belfort fucks Margot Robbie on a pile of money, and I began to suspect that whatever DiCaprio paid to get the rights for the script, it was worth it.

***OK, I made a couple of those up. This is why it’s important to read footnotes.

the Brain trust

1 comment:

  1. My reaction was a similar to yours, although I think I liked the film a little less. It's good fun for a while and I don't have any problems with its (lack of a) moral standpoint, but ultimately overstays its welcome and seems weirdly hollow by the end. And Belfort's inevitable downfall is so rote, unimaginative and impossible to care about that the final started to feel like a chore to sit through. The performances are entertaining but no one comes off as more than a 2D caricature... which may be the point, but I'm not sure such emptiness justifies this length and self-importance.

    The other thing is that this movie just doesn't show much stylistic growth for ol' Marty. There's nothing here that he didn't do a million times better before. Like Casino, it's basically just a 3 hour long montage with a couple of longer scenes, but Casino tells a much more exciting story with higher stakes, better characters, and pushes the style into almost psychedelic, abstract places. And maybe that's era specific. As fun as it is to hear "Baby Got Back" in a Scorsese movie, the tackiness of the 70's and 80's is a lot more visually arresting than the blandness of the 90's.

    Actually, there is one way I think he shows some growth: his nonjudgmental, even exuberant celebration of sex. Gone is the hang-wringing Catholic guilt of his early films. Instead we get a mostly judgment free look at sexual excess; I have trouble imagining 70's Scorsese showing a MMF threeway with such offhanded charm. Hell, I almost blushed watching that "I want you to come for me" between Jordan and his wife. Embarrassingly intimate and honest.

    (Then again, I think he's still a little old-fashioned at heart and might find some of this stuff a little more outrageous than jaded viewers like me. A couple of scenes, like the midget tossing or the S&M sex, had this feeling of "OMFG so crazy!!!!!" where I just found it kinda obvious or lame.)