Friday, December 27, 2013

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Is a New Scorsese Classic


- There are directors whose legend is, perhaps, overhyped ... and then there's Martin Scorsese. 2013 has been a fantastic year for movies - one of the best - but before all is said and done and the book is closed, here comes the master with a film that shows all of the year's almost-great films how it's done. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET completes a thematic trilogy that started with Goodfellas, continued with Casino, and now ends with a third look at the mainstreaming of crime in America. This movie is stylistically similar to those two previous Scorsese classics, and it's just effortlessly amazing. Others have mentioned this, but what quickly shocked me about the film is that, while it builds on themes and aesthetics that Scorsese has dealt with in the past, it feels like the work of a young, hungry, boundary-pushing director - not a 70-year-old veteran. The Wolf of Wall Street is 100% pure cinematic rock n' roll.

Early on, the film delivers a scene so good that it's destined to become an instant-classic. In it, Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort - at this point a young, just-starting-out Wall St. broker - has lunch with one of the big-shots at his new workplace. The big-shot is played by Matthew McConaughey (who I'm now ready to officially declare as the MVP of the movies in 2013), and the conversation between the two is electric. This might very well be the best one-scene performance in a movie since Alec Baldwin explained the principles of "Always Be Closing" in Glengarry Glen Ross. McConaughey breaks down the world of Wall St. in colorful fashion, but basically, his advice boils down to this: being a stock broker is not about helping others make money, it's about creating the illusion of helping others make money. The real trick is to reel suckers in and keep them in with the on-paper promise of future rewards, while you, the broker, rakes in actual cash at their expense. It's here that we start to see the world that Belfort is about to enter - a world based on lies, a world based on greed, and a world that's fueled by excess - sex, drugs, and an insatiable desire for more money at all costs.

Belfort soon becomes a skilled broker, but he gets a bad break when his firm goes under. He finds himself back at the bottom, and takes a job at a small-time brokerage that specializes in penny stocks. But Belfort's salesmanship quickly makes him a big fish in a small pond, and soon enough he strikes out on his own - recruiting old friends to help him form his own firm. Known for its slick sales tactics and debauched excesses, the firm quickly recruits an army of employees who worship at Belfort's altar with cult-like fervor. Soon, Belfort and his cohorts are making more money than they know what to do with, even as they increasingly become immersed in a whirlwind of corruption - attracting the attention of the FBI, who become eager to topple the empire that Belfort has built.

As the film progresses, McConaughey's early advice looms large. Belfort and his cronies don't care about who they're scamming, ripping off, or manipulating to get what they want, and what they want above all else is the all-important sale. That same drive for more, for heightened sensation, is there in Belfort's addictions to drugs and sex. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a drug-trip movie, no question. There's more coke snorted, pills swallowed, and crack smoked here than in just about any movie ever. Scorsese shows us this in excess so that we can feel the excess, so that it wears us down in a way where the drugs lose all glamor and we just think "enough is enough, these guys are nuts!". And that's exactly the correct response, the response that Scorsese aims for. This is not a film that overtly moralizes. There's no heavy-handed condemnation of Belfort or his destructive actions. Instead, the condemnation is there between the lines. The repetition of scenes of drug-use tell the tale. In this film, the drugs initially seem exciting, and the early scenes of drug use are energetic and almost triumphant. Later, they become darkly comedic - an extended scene of of Belfort and his right-hand-man Donnie (Jonah Hill) slowed to a cartoonish crawl by an overdose of quaaludes is an absurdly hilarious bit of physical comedy. Eventually, the drugs start to seem pathetic. "He's going to that well again?", we think. And so it goes throughout the film. Sex goes from sexy to comedic (Belfort literally screwing his wife atop a pile of money) to pathetic. Belfort's way with words, his gift for inspiring others and creating a cult of personality around himself, follows a similar downward spiral - from triumph to comedy to tragedy. So for those who will misguidedly denounce this film for glamorizing Belfort, I say watch more carefully. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, is, ultimately, a rather brilliant takedown of not just Belfort, but of the kind of immoral hucksterism that set the stage for modern Wall Street culture and the modern financial collapse that that culture led to.  

The film goes to very dark and very depraved places, but it's also, largely, a comedy - with numerous over-the-top sequences that are flat-out hilarious in their absurdity. Scorsese's defense-mechanism response to the sheer repulsiveness of Belfort and his Wall St. culture is to send it up in grand fashion. In one of the film's most clever repeated conceits, Belfort, via narration, will often begin to explain some facet of Wall St., only to cut himself off shrug off the lesson as not-that-important. However, he does explain in full the history of the quaalude and the exact nature of the high it provides. And it's in these details that the satirical brilliance of the movie shines through. For Belfort, Wall St. is a fantasyland bacchanalia - a playground for arrested-development adults to live without consequence. Wives are cheated on, kids neglected, and clients scammed all to achieve a neverending high. But the illusion of that high vs. the ugly reality is the source of much of the movie's humor. We see the ridiculous havoc that Belfort wreaks on his mind and body via his drug abuse, contrasted with his belief that the drugs are what give him his power, like spinach for Popeye. We see how these stockbrokers psych themselves up, believing in Belfort's rhetoric that labels them as killers and assassins. And yet, Scorsese depicts them as spineless sheep, as brainwashed losers. This is apparent in Jonah Hill's Donnie - who first appears as a geeky, creepy sort of guy who's widely mocked (and rightfully so) for marrying his cousin. Donnie quickly latches on to Belfort and becomes his Number 2, and as he gains wealth and power, Donnie starts acting like a douche - humiliating young employees and picking fights with others in Belfort's inner circle. Donnie clings to the idea that Wall St. success has made him into something more than he once was. But really, he's still just a sad sack who's married to his first cousin.

Both Hill and DiCaprio do fantastic work here. Speaking first about DiCaprio, this may be his best-yet collaboration with Scorsese. This is DiCaprio unhinged - he goes big, he goes crazy, and he even delivers scenes of physical comedy that show him to be incredibly gifted in that regard. This is the actor's most fully-inhabited role to date. He nails it. Hill, meanwhile, I really didn't know he had this in him. He hangs with DiCaprio and holds his own. I was shocked by how good he was in this film.

Hill is a surprise, but another surprise was Margot Robbie as Belfort's second wife, Naomi. When first introduced, I assumed that Robbie was just there to play a small role, to help further the rift between Belfort and his first wife, whom he married young and quickly grew apart from. Soon enough though, I realized that Naomi was a major character in this story, and that - wow - Robbie had some serious acting chops to match her seriously stunning looks. She too goes toe-to-toe with DiCaprio, and she too holds her own and doesn't give an inch. There are some other fine supporting turns in the film: Rob Reiner as Belfort's bemused dad, and Jon Bernthal as an old buddy of Belfort's who becomes their money-man. I also enjoyed seeing The Artist's Jean Dujardin show up as a rule-bending Swiss banker.

The film is impeccably shot and edited by Scorsese and his team. The stylistic trademarks from Goodfellas and Casino are back - the freeze frames, the slo-mo, the voiceovers, the visual dynamism. Scorsese mixes chaos and precision like no one else. He bobs and weaves through large crowd scenes and visually dense action, but he does so with a care and purposefulness that most directors lack. I've also got to give credit to the sharp script by Terence Winter. The movie is jam-packed with memorable and quotable lines - there's some great dialogue here that's got a lot of snap and a lot of sizzle.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is masterful on many levels. It functions as a biting, razor-sharp attack on the worst aspects of a capitalist society that's lost its way - a society that's built on and feeds off of corruption and false promises. We too are complicit in Belfort's evil, because we as a people willingly buy into what he and his ilk are selling, and enable the system that is ultimately, in many ways, a house of cards. In many respects, Belfort is America. Before his rise to Wall St. power, the old-money guys were, mostly, left alone by law-enforcement. But his story was that of a self-made man. That allowed him to surpass his born-with-a-silver-spoon competition, but it also left him vulnerable. To succeed at the level he hoped to, he had to get dirtier, meaner, and more ruthless than the establishment ever did. To achieve his version of the American Dream, he had to essentially lose his soul. But is it better to dance with the sinners than starve with the saints? THE WOLF OF WALL STREET pointedly asks that question, arching a mocking eyebrow at the pitfalls of unbridled excess.

My Grade: A

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