Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: The Wolf of Wall Street

 The Wolf of Wall Street is a study in excess, told in a masterful fashion, and a damn funny one at that, which continues to be misinterpreted, and that's a shame. I started my "Best of 2013" with American Hustle, a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed while I was watching it as both a movie about con artists but also as David O. Russell's homage to Casino and Goodfellas. And then I saw The Wolf of Wall Street, and remembered what a Martin Scorsese movie looks like when Martin Scorsese is directing, and not somebody doing a very good imitation.

 The difference is night and day: American Hustle strains under the weight of trying to be like the master, where Scorsese makes it seem effortless. There are dozens of examples I could use, but let's take one from the very beginning of the film, where Jordan Belfort (Leonard DiCaprio)'s Lamborghini is tearing through traffic, and has Belfort is telling us about how rich he is, he quickly points out that the car was white and not red, and as it switches lanes, bam!, color change. Scorsese transitions the color on motion, timed perfectly with the narration, and continues as though nothing happened.

 For those who aren't caught up on the story (or surrounding controversy that's going to rule the film out of any serious Oscar contention), The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, a stock broker turned penny stock dealer who scammed people out of their hard earned wages and lived a life of excess, beyond even the standards you'd think. He flaunted his illegality, fought the FBI and lost, and then turned on all of his friends to avoid serious jail time. Now he does motivational speaking engagements, and also wrote the book this film is based on. The real Jordan Belfort has a cameo in the film, introducing DiCaprio as Belfort near the end.

 Scorsese takes a very Goodfellas-esque approach here, throwing every trick in but the kitchen sink, and does it so well that you take it at face value. Jordan's narration will periodically shift to DiCaprio breaking the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly, making us accomplices in his schemes. The camera is constantly moving, swooping in and out of the madness at Stratton Oakmont, as Belfort's team of hand picked con artists move garbage stock and pocket the fees for themselves. Chief among them is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who quit his job immediately when Jordan provided a pay stub for 76 thousand dollars. Azoff introduces Jordan to crack and finds him some quality Quaaludes (Lemmon 714), but gets grief for being married to his cousin. His first cousin (the scene where he rationalizes it is uncomfortably hilarious, particularly because of DiCaprio's reaction).

 While this is undoubtedly Leonardo DiCaprio's show, the film is packed with well known actors in smaller roles that make a big impression. Continuing his streak of great appearances since 2012, Matthew McConaughey sweeps in at the beginning of the film, makes a big splash in a few scenes as Mark Hanna, the broker who hires Belfort and turns him from an idealist into a shark, and then disappears. There's a good reason his scene with DiCaprio in a restaurant has been compared to Alec Baldwin's scene in Glengarry Glenn Ross, because he makes that kind of impression and sets the stage for the film to come. Spike Jonze (her) has a similarly tiny role as Dwayne, the man who introduces Jordan to penny stocks, and Jon Favreau appears as Belfort's legal counsel. Rob Reiner is very funny as Jordan's father and has a few great scenes with Jonah Hill. Jon Bernthal, once of The Walking Dead, makes a good impression as one of Jordan's dealers, and Shea Whigham has a small but hilarious part as Belfort's boat captain.

 Jean Dujardin (The Artist) is a Swiss banker who agrees to hide Jordan's money in a scene where they communicate without speaking to one another. Absolutely Fabulous' Joanna Lumley is the aunt of Jordan's wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), and private investigator Bo Dietl appears as himself, offering Jordan advice with FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). And that's just scratching the surface - there's a cameo from Fran Liebowitz, who Scorsese recently made a documentary about, and I'm sure I missed a few others along the way. Almost everybody is playing broad, but the ostentatious style of the source material merits it - this is a life where people have so much money they don't know how to spend it.

 I suppose you could say that, ironically, The Wolf of Wall Street is excessive in every way except its length, which might sound surprising considering that it's a few seconds shy of three hours. It never feels like three hours, although you're probably going to be a little overwhelmed by the rampant profanity, drug use, and gratuitous nudity, even considering who directed the film. From naked marching bands to the differences in prostitute quality to a scene involving Quaaludes that rivals the best physical comedy you can think of, The Wolf of Wall Street pushes Belfort's indulgences well beyond what a normal person would consider "reasonable" or even "excessive." When a movie opens with tossing a "little person" and a conversation where he's referred to as "it," you know for certain: Hugo this ain't.

  It's a glimpse into a world you'll never live in, and while it was cool to visit, I wouldn't want to stay there, and that certainly seems to be the point. And that's why I reject the consistent argument that The Wolf of Wall Street glorifies Jordan Belfort's behavior or makes it out to be something that up and coming brokers would want to emulate. Only an idiot looking to ruin their life very quickly would try to do anything that happens in this film. I don't suspect anybody is going to emulate Belfort's idiotic attempt to bribe Agent Denham, get called out on it, and then decide to kick the Feds off of his yacht, and if they do, they're not going to get sweetheart deals like he did.

 Don't misunderstand me: I'm not excusing what the actual Jordan Belfort did, but The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't glorify him in any way. Scorsese lets you see the world of the super rich, of the scum that floats to the top and lives a lifestyle that might be cool for a day or two (nice boats, lots of money and drugs, lots of sex and acting life a buffoon) but sticks around long enough to show you that you really wouldn't want to keep going. Even the Quaaludes scene, which proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Leonardo DiCaprio can handle physical comedy in a way nobody ever considered, has a sobering dark side when Scorsese cuts away to Belfort's young daughter watching her father. This is not a lifestyle that's admirable or worth emulating - it's fun to watch, and make no mistake that The Wolf of Wall Street is first and foremost a comedy, but it's unsustainable, even in the narrative of the picture.

 I'm also a little confused about the reaction to this because people are behaving as though this isn't something Martin Scorsese does regularly. Many of his most well renowned pictures are centered around seriously flawed protagonists, and most of the very best ones are based on real people who were still alive when he made them. Henry Hill no doubt benefited from Goodfellas, and Jake LaMotta didn't exactly hurt from Raging Bull. "Ace" Rothstein was based on Frank Rosenthal, who was still alive when Casino was released. Were they any more "glorified" than Jordan Belfort in their respective films? Or are they also presented as characters with serious issues, people who we relate to but wouldn't want to be in any more than a "wish fulfillment" capacity? I don't want to be Jordan Belfort any more than I would want to be Henry Hill, but I enjoyed seeing their stories told by a great filmmaker. If I want to object to the glorification of horrible people, I would again point you in the direction of Pain & Gain, a movie that simultaneously laughs at and glorifies (by casting Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Mackie, and Dwayne Johnson) kidnappers and murderers.

 In the end, it all boils down to whether The Wolf of Wall Street is a movie worth watching, and it's an easy "yes." It's funny, fast paced, excessive (does Jonah Hill play Donnie Azoff too broadly? I don't know, maybe?) but it never feels long. There's a playfulness in Scorsese's direction that keeps things moving, and DiCaprio hasn't been this good in a long time. I didn't see The Great Gatsby but I'll go out on a limb and say that this is the better "rich asshole" picture of 2013. Even with Shutter Island in consideration, The Wolf of Wall Street is far and away their best collaboration, and I think that once the controversy dies down people might be more comfortable with the film as a part of the larger body of Scorsese's work. There's something to be said for a great American filmmaker working at the top of his game, making movies well into his 70s that are as good as anything out there. No offense to David O. Russell, because I did like American Hustle a lot when I saw it - it's just that you picked the wrong year to tug on Superman's cape.

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