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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill

The Roman Empire lives and it is now called Wall Street. Though a satirical account of the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is nevertheless illuminating in terms of the current state of the North American economy - that we haven't collapsed into anarchy is something of a miracle if this story is to be believed. A tale of excess, debauchery, greed, and massive consumption, the film is as loud, as brash, as slick, and as unapologetic as its protagonist but, Jesus God, does it ever feel like it's a million hours long. At just a hair under 3 hours, it's far from being literally the longest movie I've seen all year, but when it comes to characters like the ones portrayed here, a little goes a long way.

In 1987 Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets foot on Wall Street, almost like a babe in the woods but quickly disavowed of his better instincts. Any innocence he has is quickly stripped away when he's taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who schools him in the two things, other than an ability to sell, necessary not just to succeed as a stockbroker, but to function: drugs and sex. Belfort is only too pleased to sink himself into indulgence, though his career hits a snag when Black Monday comes along and his job disappears as a result. He retreats to Long Island where he gets a job in a boiler room dealing in penny stocks, quickly starting to amass his fortune thanks to the 50% commission. After attracting the attention of his neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and becoming his mentor in stock trading, the two set out to form their own company, bringing some of their penny stock cohorts along, as well some friends of Jordan's who have no experience in stocks, but plenty of experience in selling as drug dealers. Together they start Stratton Oakmont, a company which quickly ascends in profile at about the same rate that Jordan and his friends descend into depravity and licentiousness.

Jordan's first marriage is an early victim of his massive appetite for sex and drugs, but his love of hookers and lots of sex with lots of different women doesn't stop him from taking the marital plunge a second time to a woman he refers to as "the Duchess" (Margot Robbie). As the years carry on, Jordan comes under the scrutiny of the SEC and the FBI, with FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), in particular, watching for him to make the mistake that will bring down his empire. Jordan, being a dumb person who thinks that simply being richer than someone also makes him smarter than that person, almost makes it too easy for the FBI, but ultimately manages to slip out of the net, at least for a while. In an effort to protect his fortune, he smuggles vast sums of cash to Switzerland with the help of a Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin), a measure which turns out to be ill-advised. After finally getting nabbed by the Feds, Belfort is offered a deal to turn informant, which he takes but then tries to weasel out of by secretly trying to protect Donnie. Facing jail time and the loss of all his ill-gotten gains, Jordan begins to come undone and, just when you think he can't possibly sink any lower, he exceeds your expectations.

The Wolf of Wall Street has proven to be one of the more controversial and polarizing films of the season, with accusations that it glorifies Belfort and that it's misogynistic. Although I didn't like the film, I don't think that either of those accusations really have weight. With respect to misogyny, while I'm generally dismayed at the growing ubiquity of gratuitous female full frontal nudity in films (remember when such a thing used to be shocking? Now it's so common it barely even registers), and while this particular film features a damn lot of that, I think that this is a film about misogynists, not a film endorsing misogyny. The women in The Wolf of Wall Street are empty vessels, to be sure, but so are the men. There's nothing of substance to any of them, save the massive amount of substances they consume. I would say that if you took away the drugs and other excesses they would be boring, but by the millionth scene of them doing drugs and behaving excessively they're boring even with those elements, so. The men in this film dehumanize women in scene after scene, but they also dehumanize themselves in the process, jettisoning their humanity in order to make room for more drugs and more sex, neither of which they seem to pursue for pleasure so much as for the satisfaction of consumption. They need to have, to have publicly, and to have the most because the acknowledged quantity of their decadence is all there is to them. They don't treat women like people because they themselves are not people.

With respect to glorifying Belfort and his lifestyle, I think that Scorsese's intentions are made pretty clear in a scene where he shows the brokers acting like animals, chest thumping and throwing each other around like a bunch of apes, behaving in a less sophisticated fashion than the literal monkey that makes a brief appearance in the scene. These aren't men to be admired; these are men that evolution skipped over. And, yet, in real life they are admired, a fact which the last shot of the film hammers home as Jordan conducts a seminar for a rapt audience. He's a despicable person who has done horrible, criminal things, but ours is a culture that admires the ability to make money and, on some level, sees it as a virtue no matter how it's done. That's why there are so many "get rich quick" schemes out there because, while we pay lip service to notions like having a good work ethic, the idea of making a fast fortune with a minimum of effort is appealing to many. If The Wolf of Wall Street makes people uncomfortable, I would suggest that it isn't because it glorifies Belfort's criminality, but because it doesn't have to glorify it - that reverence is already there, built into every inch of our culture. The film isn't an indictment of Belfort, who is merely a symptom of a larger disease; it's an indictment of us.

The main problems that I had with The Wolf of Wall Street are that it gets unbearably repetitive and that it ultimately doesn't really go anywhere. There's no payoff to this story because Belfort doesn't actually get his comeuppance for all the awful things that he does. It isn't Scorsese's fault, of course, that Belfort did a couple of years in Club Fed and then went right back to raking in money, publishing his memoirs and then starting a new career as a motivational speaker, rebuilding a small fortune for himself (without having finished paying restitution to the people he defrauded, it should be noted) and proving that justice, like nearly everything else, bends to the will of those with means. It is Scorsese's fault that the film is bloated beyond measure and that it grows tiresome long before it reaches the end. Although buoyed by a few virtuoso sequences like the Quaalude crawl (which is one of the funniest movie sequences I saw in all of 2013) and the all in performances of DiCaprio (who has never seemed looser) and Hill (solid in a character role), the film is dragged down by its excess weight. If 20 to 40 minutes were to be cut (which would account for approximately 10 to 20% of the scenes involving hookers and blow), I think The Wolf of Wall Street would probably be a masterpiece, but in its current form it's an overstuffed behemoth.

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