December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

A strange mixture of brilliant and repulsive. You don't so much see The Wolf of Wall Street as you experience it. It's like looking into the heart of decay, only it's encrusted with jewels and wrapped in money. I had the same problem last year with Killer Joe. It was one heck of a movie, but I felt ashamed to even admit that I liked it. Is it wrong to enjoy depravity on the big screen? Even a little? Is it a sign of our own moral corruption that we might award accolades to a movie like director Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, which some have dared to call a great film? Mike LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, "Though Raging Bull must still go down as Martin Scorsese's greatest achievement, The Wolf of Wall Street makes the race for No. 2 a lot more interesting." Robert Kojder of the website What Culture concludes, "It's impossible not to become absolutely immersed."

Perhaps J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader sums it up best: "Scorsese's helpless attraction to the very behavior he wants to indict becomes the movie's serrated edge." (All of these quotes were accessed via Rotten Tomatoes. It wasn't exactly an arduous task.) The critics don't all agree of course. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal didn't like it, and neither did Stephanie Zacharek of Village Voice, calling the film "too much of a bad thing."

I find myself in a weird middle ground. I don't feel that The Wolf of Wall Street is a great film that will forever be remembered in the annals of American cinema. (Then again, it might be.) But I also didn't hate it. I very much enjoyed the movie, and was rarely if ever bored (which is saying a lot because it's three hours long and I usually get restless after two). I'm fascinated by people who think wealth and stuff will make them happy, perhaps because I have to fight this belief myself sometimes. (Don't we all?) There must be an element of schadenfreude at work here: I'm glued to the screen for three hours watching a heartless S.O.B. steal from lower-middle-class schlubs, abuse Quaaludes like they're going off the market (oh, wait, they already were!), take Penicillin shots every time he sleeps with a prostitute, and treat his family like pawns in his narcissistic little game, and all the while I'm hoping for the big payoff: the fall. That's the appeal of movies: they rise up, and then they fall, and it's a glorious smashing effect full of broken shards of glass and bloody palms and dust settling over the fallen anti-hero's decadent, decaying corpse.

Here's the gist of the plot: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a slick New Yorker with dollar signs in his eyes who starts a successful stock trading company from the ground up. Jordan is ever the slick salesman (a character trait that recurs throughout DiCaprio's oeuvre), and he turns the penny-stock-trading schmucks who work for him into first-class brokers who could make a man buy his own pen from them. Belfort's schemes aren't exactly legal, which gets him in trouble with the SEC and the FBI. And along the way, Belfort becomes addicted to drugs, sex, and the overall celebration of excess. What's a guy to do when he has so much money that transferring it to a Swiss bank account takes six separate trips for five separate people with stacks of bills taped to their bodies?

So basically, it's an ultimate American success story. In America, if you really want to, you can do this. And Jordan Belfort did and got caught, but then he served his measly 22 months and became a motivational speaker and wrote two books. (The script by Terence Winter is based on one of them, of the same name.)

But we're in it for the fall. And boy does Jordan Belfort fall! When leads his considerable staff in some kind of tribal chant (taught him by his mentor, who's played by Matthew McConaughey, in a cameo appearance), where they beat their chests and hum this creepy guttural mantra. It's a money-lover's war chant, and it takes this whole money-laundering thing into an almost prehistoric realm: We haven't changed, but the stuff we chase after has. And the toys are shinier and more expensive. (And those Quaaludes, man! Oh the Quaaludes!)

There's not much more to say about this movie. It's incredibly well-made and it really is brilliant in a sick sort of way. But you've been warned: it's like staring at death, or perhaps a mirror (if you want to take Belfort as an exaggeration of every person that ever valued stuff too much). And there are a lot of scenes depicting drug abuse and sex. So bear that in mind before you head to the theater. With Jonah Hill (whose character I genuinely loathed), Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin (who gives a memorable performance as the president of a Swiss bank), Cristin Milioti, and Christine Ebersole.

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