Dec 28, 2013
The Wolf Of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese is back to his old stomping grounds, those of the unsavory, amoral characters he loves to love. In this case, this mafia is not the one in Little Italy or Jersey, but the one on Wall Street, as embodied by one Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio giving it his all, and then some), upon whose memoir this well-written movie (by Terence Winter from The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire) is based.
The movie is three hours long, and although it feels expansive, I was not bored for one second. It chronicles, in debauched detail, the rise and "fall" of Belfort, who started working as a broker for an old Wall Street firm which went bust in the crash of 1987, to then stumble upon a scheme getting 50% commissions pushing penny stocks and, after that, all kinds of increasingly brazen financial crimes.
His beginnings are worth noting for one thing: Matthew McConaughey is in them, and he has so much fun being a charming, A-type master of the universe, unrepentant asshole, he should get a special Oscar for his few minutes onscreen. He is fun in a bottle. DiCaprio can't quite muster McConaughey's easy charm, but he certainly musters every other extreme of human behavior. It's good to see him having fun, for a change.
It's also fun to see Scorsese fill up his whirling frames with nerds from Long Island. This is a mafia film, only it takes place on Wall Street. The assorted nerds are the old high school pals Belfort recruits to start selling bad stocks to suckers. Belfort is a bullshit artist extraordinaire, a born salesman. He sees opportunity, gives his firm an invented hyphenated name, claims the two Waspy last names arrived in the Mayflower, and voilá, you have a classic American success story, all based on lying, cheating and stealing.
There are grumblings out there that the filmmakers are celebrating and glorifying the chutzpah of inveterate, criminal sleazebags. True, you watch this movie at the peril of finding yourself rooting for absolutely detestable guys. But the grumblers forget that this is a Martin Scorsese movie (see Casino, Goodfellas, Mean Streets). The guy has a soft spot for hoodlums. That unease you feel while wondering how you can possibly root for Belfort and his pal Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, magnificent), is the fascination and repulsion Scorsese has always harbored for characters who don't play by the rules. I sure am glad he is not making movies about children, the Dalai Lama, or Howard Hughes. It's more fun when he spends time with the people he loves.
The movie is told in voiceover narration by Belfort, so it's not meant to be "judgement day": it's his point of view, and he's not too contrite. It should be a tragedy, but it is the comedy of this terrible man's life. He survived pretty much unscathed, and now even has a blockbuster movie to his name.
But there is a very dark side. The descent into abject behavior by everyone involved, the utter lack of a moral compass, insane drug addiction, depraved indifference to anything and everything, and the almost inhuman dissoluteness of formerly regular guys are viciously portrayed. There is no armed violence, but this is the violence of plunder. Scorsese portrays Belfort's pep talks as excuses for frat boy-like savagery. It is funny, but it is also disturbing and disgusting: the way they treat women, the way they cheat their clients, the way they betray each other.
I did not find the film to be an enthusiastic endorsement of financial immorality. Quite the contrary, it is saying that it is in our system to let these things happen. By enjoying these extreme financial escapades are we not colluding with Belfort, as we collude with white collar crime, where in real life no one ever pays? If it isn't for the poor FBI agent (a very good Kyle Chandler) checking into things, utter depravity would continue ensuing. Belfort himself learns the ropes of impropriety from his mentor (McConaughey), who comes from a "venerable" firm. He is just doing the same as the bigger Wall Street firms at a much smaller scale, and with exhibitionism and working class gumption. Even so, the accumulation of wealth looks staggering, to us poor schmoes. It is a very uncomfortable tightrope act, being entertained by horrific behavior that caused grief to endless people, but this is what makes the movie interesting. As a tragic morality tale it might be unbearable. As a vicious comedy, it leaves a welcome nasty aftertaste. You can feel guilty of enjoying the excess all the way to your house.
If anybody can sustain three hours of manic energy spiraling out of control, it is Scorsese. Many of his trademark tropes are here: thrilling camerawork (by Rodrigo Prieto), precision editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, and also the by now tiresome relentless rock & roll soundtrack. This film will remind you of Goodfellas with its voiceover narration, and of Casino, in particular Belfort's relationship with his second wife, played by an excellent Margot Robbie. It will feel, at times, like vintage Scorsese schtick. The scenes of orgiastic chaos are tableaux out of Hieronymus Bosch but with bad 80s clothes, courtesy of the spectacular Sandy Powell, and they are meant to feel excessive.
Far better are the quieter scenes, where actors get to act and say the very profane and funny lines Winter has written for them. Here you can see a director who is still in full command of his craft. At the center of the movie is a fantastic scene between Belfort and the FBI agent. It takes place at Belfort's ostentatious yacht. It is a long, beautifully orchestrated scene, where Belfort, emboldened by the fruits of his labor, thinks he can impress, humiliate and even insinuate a deal to the G-man. This agent is the only presence of a moral compass in the movie. He takes the subway, anonymous, and unsung. He makes no money. He is what Belfort considers a loser.
Scorsese's movies have not been this fun since Goodfellas, but here the humor is over the top slapstick. A fabled sequence where Belfort is quaaluded out of his gourd is almost something out of silent comedy. A scene where Belfort's dad (Rob Reiner, spectacular) loses his marbles over a phone call is comedy at its best. It's also a joy to recognize wonderful character actors like Spike Jonze, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Jon Favreau, and even Fran Lebovitz as a no-nonsense judge. The enormous cast is well chosen and vibrant.
I loved the end scene (look for the real Jordan Belfort introducing the fake one). It reminded me of P.T. Barnum's dictum: "there's a sucker born every minute".
Jordan Belfort, and apparently all of Wall Street, still live by this motto.