Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Down Wall Street Lay Many Socio-Paths
The Bacchanal Stops Here (in the Raging Bull Market)

"May you live in interesting times" says the old Chinese proverb.  With the Chinese holding a good chunk of the U.S. debt and the financial stakes being held by the likes of the degenerates of The Wolf of Wall Street, these are interesting times, indeed, as Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio present a contemporary tale of Roman excess, only slightly more believable than the horrors they collaborated on with Shutter Island by hoodlums only slightly more endearing than the gangsters of Goodfellas.

That it is also Sorsese's most roaringly entertaining film in awhile says something else.

One must be prepared to be shocked going in—the film starts with a dwarf-tossing contest as a way of letting off steam on "casual Friday" and that's just the beginning—within ten minutes we'll be treated to a rather delicately composed shot of DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort, the late 20th Century descendant of Horatio Alger and Sammy Glick, snorting cocaine from a highly unusual receptacle, and still thoroughly plowed out of his mind that he crashes his personal helicopter onto his property. And over the next three hours—don't worry, the movie zips by, jumping from extreme to extreme every ten minutes like battles in a space epic—we follow a familiar path in the films of Scorsese, of the rise, fall and subsequent grovelling of its protagonist, forced to a penance of knowing how good he had it and never being able to get there again—of having "the secret" and not being able to use it. There has been a critical backlash that perhaps Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter haven't been quite so judgmental in their portrayal of the events of the film, but that's because they've chosen for their principal point of view that of Belfort, himself, who, while breaking every rule in the book to get whatever he wants, violates the fourth wall, continually, as well, addressing the audience and explaining enthusiastically "How He Did It." It's the perverse counter-point to the kind of seminars on selling that Belfort conducts now to make money...and avoid the constant glare of the authorities who took him down.
DiCaprio's Belfort Explains it All to You
It's also the American Dream turned into an American Nightmare. Belfort takes the get-up-and-go spirit of American capitalism and never puts on the brakes. In America, he hears nothing but the sound of opportunity knocking—at every opportunity, in business or his own pleasure—and, like any addictive personality, can't stop. He is given a lunch-lecture on the perverse nature of Wall Street brokering by a mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McCounaghey, scarily entertaining, again), downing martinis and snorting cocaine at the table, explaining in a rambling monologue about the pressures on brokers pushing "fugazi's" while enjoining Belfort to join him in a fraternal caveman chest-thumping that becomes emblematic of the low-mindedness of every enterprise Belfort takes on subsequently.  For awhile, he does okay, then gets blown out of his job, thanks to the Crash of '87.

He's reduced to making cold-calls on penny-stocks for a boiler room in a strip mall, where Belfort soon establishes himself as a top-tier hustler there, adapting an attitude of hyper-optimism for gullible first-time investors, finding as he does so that he is actually making more money as he gets higher commissions pushing worthless stocks. To push his credibility with buyers further, he establishes a new firm with a neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a line-up of friends who are bottom-feeder salesmen and drug pushers. They start a firm with the prestige-dripping name of Stratton Oakmont, aggressively playing the market by promoting bad stocks, then cashing out once the stocks reach a peak, a strategy scam called "pump and dump."
Soon, Belfort and Co. have more money than Croesus, which they re-invest in extravagent lifestyles, primarily booze, drugs—primarily cocaine and quaaludes—and hookers, which are claimed on taxes as entertainment expenses. "
On a daily basis I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month," he crows in voice-over. "I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain",Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine...well, because it's awesome." Before too long, he's in a toxic affair with Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), "a former model and Miller Lite girl," which gets found out by his wife, he's divorced, and married again to his blond dream girl.

"Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out"--Martin Scorsese
Margot Robbie as "Naomi" Belfort
But, that's not enough. There is no limit to his appetite or avarice. And before long, he's noticed by the IRA and the FBI, which leads him to Swiss banks and offshore investments, and an escalating series of disasters as the risks he takes (along with the drugs) increases.
It culminates in one of the funniest, scariest sequences in movies this year, as Belfort has to call his lawyer from an "outside phone" (his have been tapped by investigators) at the same time a few quaaludes ("Lemmon 714's") past their shelf-date by a few years finally kick in, and leave him a drooling, crawling, babbling mess unable to function, at anything above an autonomic level. Here's that scene, but be warned, this is
NSFW, has multiple f-bombs (this film set a record for fictional films of 569 times over three hours, averaging 3.18 per minute, the clip is five minutes long, so you do the math), and will look bizarre out of context, as it is bizarre and zany enough in the film.

DiCaprio's work here is hilarious, but the entire performance may be the best of his career, a prancing walk-and-talk act with the kind of pugnacious grace that Cagney gave to his gangster roles and Malcolm McDowell gave to his thug in A Clockwork Orange. There's a mad-cap joy to his work, and a genuine desire to make Belfort look as dysfunctional as possible, a prince in the boardroom, but a sad-sack in his private life, that's only matched by Jonah Hill's second-in-command who knows no shame, and may be more out-of-control than Belfort. Margot Robie will be wise to de-glam her next few roles, if she doesn't want to do the next ten "It-girl" roles—after Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie, and every model who's tried to act—as she's barbie-doll-objectified to perfection, but also given some roaring good scenes to spit out. Kyle Chandler is the hang-dogged FBI agent assigned to Belfort, and the movie is full of nice work by a long line of character actors, including bits with Jean Dujardin and Rob Reiner.
As I said, it's the "fullest" film of Scorsese's recent decade of movies, but it won't be everybody's cup of arsenic—the film has been attacked for being sexist and not condemning Belfort more. Both attacks seem a little spurious, as Belfort and Stratton Oakmont were as "Old Boys Club" as it comes, and reveled in declass
é behavior of all stripes—"not only was he a degenerate and a crook but he didn't have a high opinion of women, either" wins the "Sherlock" award for stating the obvious. And, again, the condemnation?  It's there. Belfort out of control looks as ridiculous on-screen as the filmmakers can conspire to make him, short of giving him a "Bozo" nose; just because he is too full of himself (or some other substance) to recognize his ridiculousness does not mean that depiction does not exist. It just means that the character is maintaining his conscienceless attitude and his sociopathic detachment, especially regarding himself. In the Scorsese mixture of bull-headed comedy and tragedy, the protagonists don't recognize condemnation, even if they get it.
It is, after all, "based on a true story."  And a real creep.
The real Jordan and Nadine Belfort in happier, if less sober, times

That "Forbes" article they talk about in the movie.

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