Monday, December 30, 2013
The Wolf of Wall Street (***1/2)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Many important filmmakers are copied, homaged, even straight ripped off. These influences usually guide filmmakers to find their own voices as they weed through the fields of their heroes, and in a lot of cases those filmmakers go on to improve on those styles. Consider Martin Scorsese himself, who borrowed greatly from Fellini and Cassavettes to form his own singular and brilliant vision. He improved upon those visionaries. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese shows that in 2013 nobody can do Scorsese as well as the man himself. With all the posturing of American Hustle, beating around the bush of Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese puts that film to shame with Wolf, which dares to go there; show American excess as what it is: a giant party that never ends, an avalanche of drugs, sex and money money money. In his fifth collaboration with the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the director pushes his favorite movie star to the brink of sanity, to a place where becoming satiated is not an option. Sure, Wolf is a lot like Goodfellas but this is a Scorsese rip-off on Scorsese's terms, and that produces some of the most entertaining cinema you're going to find this holiday season.
The film is based on the tell-all memoir by Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street sleaze-ball who shot straight up to the top of the wealthiest in America based on selling sucker stocks to the most powerful in the country. Belfort's book is the kind of swashbuckling expose that's one part whistleblower, another part show-off of extravagance. Screenwriter Terrence Winter zeroes in solely on the second part, using Belfort as a springboard to showcase the outrageous irresponsibility during 1990's Wall Street boom. We've seen a lot of grimmer, fire-and-brimtsone versions of this kind of tale. Oliver Stone's Wall Street was filled with condemnation straight from the pulpit, but it not only failed to correspond its anti-capitalist message, but actually made the evil Gordon Gekko character seem like a sexy life choice. There's also all the documentaries, like Inside Job and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which put the actual evil faces right on the screen and expose them. Just this year, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine had a character played by Alec Baldwin who goes to jail for criminal activity on Wall Street. Wolf is the first to fully explain why so many of these men take place in such evil greed: sure it's an obscene amount of money but it's more than that. It's also so damn fun.
DiCaprio stars as Belfort and he plays him as a hedonistic psychopath - though that's not how he begins. Jordan arrives in New York City with hopes of making it as a stock broker. He gets his first job as a telephone man for a couple of big name stockbrokers, one of them is named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). On Jordan's first day, Hanna invites him out to lunch and explains to him the key points to success on Wall Street. The two main suggestions are this: moderation is a joke and everything - whether it be drugs, money and even masturbation - should be done to the absolute limit; and the other suggestion is that everything works great as long as you can transfer the client's money into your pocket. Keep pushing stock, never let them sell and keep collecting the actual commission while the client keeps getting figuratively rich as the stock rises and eventually falls. Jordan can tell by Hanna's zonked-out persona that he gets off on the high of taking suckers' money and gets actually high off of numerous types of drugs. And Jordan wants to be exactly like him. On his first day as a stockbroker, it's Black Monday in 1987, and the stock market collapses bringing Hanna's entire company down with it.
Jobless, Jordan applies for a job at a small brokers' firm which specializes in penny stocks - basically shucking shit stocks to lower class family men. The only upside is that these penny stocks are so small that they're not even done on computers, they're done on pink sheets where the commission is 50%, instead of the 1% he was making with Hanna. Crappier stocks and less wealthy clients, but fifty times the commission if the client buys. Belfort quickly translates his Wall Street trained charm to these penny stocks while the rest of his co-workers watch, mesmerized. He converts all of these sales while collecting half of the clip. Before long, all of the people in the office are looking toward him to lead them, and he creates his own office, instructing his followers to commit to memory a very specific speech to guarantee the sale of these less-than-appetizing stocks. He gets so much money so quickly that he attracts the attention of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a man who lives in his building. Donnie is a stocky Jew with blinding white teeth who has more of a dependence problem than even Jordan has, and when he learns of how much Jordan earns and how easily he earns it, he quits his job right on the spot and takes up work with Jordan as his right hand man.
Jordan's wife Teresa (Cristin Miloti) loves her husband's success and the new lifestyle that it brings them, but she can't help but wonder about the morality that comes with taking money from unintelligent poor people. When she tells him so, Jordan decides that he can use his same formula on the super rich and he renames his company Stratton Oakmont, giving it a lion-symboled insignia. With his new prey, his growing workforce and the rabid Donnie willing to do whatever it takes, Stratton becomes a billion dollar company, with plenty of extra change to spend on all of the drugs and prostitutes needed to keep Stratton's weekly sexcapades on cue. Jordan's life quickly grows out of hand, the money piling so quickly that it's too hard to organize. Then he meets Naomi (Margot Robbie) who shows up at a party at his house on the arm of another man. She's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, and he barely even tries to hide the fact that he's hitting on her from her date or his wife. He becomes intoxicated by her beauty, and soon dumps Teresa, makes Naomi his new second wife and moves her into a mansion upstate.
All things considered, Wolf is a parade of debauchery, displaying the work place of Stratton Oakmont as a housing facility for depravity. The people who work for Belfort don't seem to possess any particular skills, but they all contain a pornographic lust for money and all of the lewd workplace behavior that it can afford them. Early in the film, an office party contains little people who are heaved at a velcro target, followed by a marching band pushing through the desks and offices wearing only underwear. As the musicians play on, around them brokers fondle naked hookers, have sex on their desks and openly do drugs. Stratton Oakmont is a frat party more often than it's an office. And that's exactly how Belfort wants it. The whole party is funded by greedy millionaires just waiting to give away their money to the hottest new stock - and the men at Stratton are more than happy to oblige them. Winter's unapologetic script and Scorsese's addled direction toe the line dangerously between satire and irresponsibility. Should we glorify this nearly sociopathic behavior? The people who dislike these films (like Scorsese's Goodfellas, like Boyle's Trainspotting, like Anderson's Boogie Nights), have selective memory. Would you like to be Belfort by the end of this movie?
And the eventual downfall does come. Donnie's fervent drug abuse finally rears its head and Jordan's refusal to live in any form of moderation leads to the eventual burst of the bubble. The stakes for Belfort aren't as high as Henry Hill's, and knowing this, Scorsese and Winter make his complete disregard for normal human behavior a complete farce. It's hard not to watch this movie and feel like it's Scorsese grasping hard onto youth - his films have never been this much of a tits-n-ass parade, and while he's always been a specialist in examining the fragile, insecure male psyche, the supporting female characters have always had a little bit more to do than this. But this movie sucks you in seductively with its humor and its need to keep topping itself. The nudity here is explicit but without much meaning. Men in the Stratton Oakmont office pull their penises out so often (at one point, high on quaaludes, Donnie just begins to mindlessly masturbate in front of everybody), that it becomes second nature. Double team a girl in your office in the middle of the day? Seems like standard operating procedure. But it is frustrating to see that Jordan Belfort it out and about these days, raking in as much cash as ever. Are we supposed to condemn him? After all, isn't he guilty of wanting something all Americans want?
But the film doesn't exactly have the thunderous condemnation at its conclusion. Jordan Belfort isn't exactly picking up a newspaper off his doorstep in his dollar store robe the way Henry Hill is at the end of Goodfellas. The comeuppance and the super crash aren't nearly as harsh. This probably goes hand in hand with Belfort's consistent line that he doesn't exactly feel bad about what he's done, even at rock bottom. The giant party is worth the downfall. The reason Wolf of Wall Street works is because Leonardo DiCaprio goes deeper into this role than he has in any other role in his entire career. A movie star as talented and elusive as DiCaprio is able to walk without a certain persona. His characters don't come stocked with audience expectation the way Clooney or Damon do, so his profound delving into this amoral man feels like a shock. But DiCaprio is incredibly funny here as well, supplying Belfort with an indomitable aloofness. The behavior of this character is despicable and terrifying, possessing a certain self-importance that makes you scared for the future of our culture, but DiCaprio is in complete consumption. We never root for Belfort (well, at least I didn't), but DiCaprio makes damned sure that you want to keep watching him.
The original cut of this movie was apparently four hours long and the film had a pretty notorious post-production process which almost delayed its release to 2014. The film is edited by the legendary Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, who cuts this movie with her usual frantic style, throwing continuity out the window to correctly portray the cracked mindset of drug addiction. The dialogue paces ferociously with the actors said to have ad-libbed a grand majority of their lines (this gives some amazing moments for Rob Reiner who has a wonderful supporting performance as Jordan's worrisome, temperamental father). The Wolf of Wall Street cannot get enough of itself, it consumes as much as it possibly can. Scorsese shows money as the most dangerous addiction (Belfort literally says as much in the film's opening montage), and capitalism as its greatest enabler. Kyle Chandler gives a terrific supporting performance as Patrick Denham, an FBI agent working hard to take Belfort down. But Wolf makes no bones about the dichotomy between. Denham is the hero that eventually takes down Belfort, but he will never live the life that Belfort experienced. Even after putting Jordan Belfort behind bars, he still has to take the subway home.