Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street review

Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street is a dizzying, exhausting, three-hour tale of debauchery and excess. If it does not enthrall or mesmerize you it will piss you off, but either way, the film's doing its job. Its darkly comic approach to the material can be off-putting to some, but you also have to hand it to the 71-year-old director for still being able to make a movie that can stir up such mixed reactions across the board. Like with Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese once again shows a world in the most matter-of-fact, blunt manner possible told from the point-of-view of the film's antihero. The moral judgments have all been left up to you, making you an active participant in the film instead of a passive observer.

As awful as the characters in Goodfellas and Casino are, they at least live in a world that has some sort of moral code. Even the most violent mob criminal has to abide by a certain set amount of rules. If he doesn't, he constantly has to watch his back.  In Wolf of Wall Street, there are no rules. There is no karma. These guys can do whatever they want as long as they know how to cover their ass.  Our capitalistic society has allowed for stockbrokers like these to get as filthy rich as possible and we have given them no reason to tone it down.

They may have "more money than they know what to do with," but Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort definitely tries his best to spend as much of it as possible. Whether it's $2 million trips to Las Vegas, or the hundreds of prostitutes, the drugs, the sports cars, the yachts---there's a reason why Jordan and his pals are unashamedly snorting cocaine on a yacht in the middle of the day, society does not condemn these people the way it does with mafia members and other, more "blue collar" criminals.

Wolf of Wall Street's in-your-face nature is exactly the point. How are these people allowed to get away with this? They con people out of millions of dollars and then, at worst, they spend a couple of years in prison as long as they cooperate. In the mob, cooperating with the Feds can get you whacked, but there's no such thing as "getting whacked" in the stockbroker world. And don't get it twisted: the movie finds the sex, drugs, and criminal activity to be just as rotten as you do, there's just nothing the movie can do about it. If the filmmakers toned down the debauchery and/or forced these characters to pay the consequences, it would be a dishonest film. This is the world these characters live in and it still goes on today. So, go ahead, get angry. It's about time we did.

But why watch the film if it's just going to make you angry? Well, first of all, Scorsese's no-holds-barred approach exposes this world in ways never seen before with an incredible amount of depth, and it's always fascinating. Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, is as awful as he is charming. He builds up Stratton Oakmont, an over-the-counter brokerage house, with his bare hands. Initially pushing penny stocks to average joes while retaining a huge commission in return, Stratton Oakmont eventually moves up to the wealthiest 1%, aggressively continuing to sell stocks through "pump and dump" schemes. In other words, touting a company's stock "through false and misleading statements to the marketplace." Jordan and his team make a boatload of money screwing people over and how do they spend their money? By performing sexually depraved acts, taking quaaludes, snorting cocaine---"surprisingly", these rotten human beings celebrate their questionable behavior by doing rotten things and Belfort is at the center of it all. He makes the "rock-n-roll lifestyle" look like child's play. It's a wonder how this man is still alive.

But he's also a fascinating character. Here is a man that can pretty much sell anything. He has charisma and exuberance. By all accounts, he is naturally gifted. Unfortunately, he chooses to use his gift to become a scam artist and he lives in a country where the consequences for his actions are relatively minor. He's not so much a sex or drug addict as he is a money addict. He's so addicted to the lifestyle he has created for himself that when he receives an offer to step down as a way out of spending any time in jail, he refuses to do it. He loves the lifestyle too much. He loves making passionate, profanity-laden speeches to his employees. He loves the drugs, the hookers, and the attention. By the end, he winds up looking like the biggest asshole in cinema history.

Another reason why Wolf of Wall Street is worth the watch: this is by far the funniest movie Martin Scorsese has ever made. You cannot help but laugh at the sheer amount of insanity these characters get involved in. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill completely own their roles, with DiCaprio revealing that he's actually a pretty gifted physical comedian. Jonah Hill, coming from the improv-heavy Apatow background, is perfect as the sleazy, overweight right-hand man to Jordan Belfort. The kind of shenanigans this duo gets involved in never stops being entertaining. Their debauchery leads to a night where the two of them test out a special form of quaaludes and it leads to one of the funniest sequences that I have seen all year.

The biggest revelation in the film, however, is Margot Robbie. She plays Naomi, the "Duchess of Bay Ridge," who winds up becoming Jordan's second wife. She is the only one who can consistently keep Jordan on his toes as she's infinitely smarter and more cunning than he is. It probably goes without saying that she is drop-dead gorgeous, but what Margot Robbie manages to bring to this character is very similar to Sharon Stone's performance in Casino. The difference between Naomi and Stone's Ginger is that Naomi always has her act together. She's very much willing to play the role of housewife, but she refuses to put up with Jordan's bullshit. Robbie and DiCaprio are at the center of one of the most intense scenes in the film, a scene that nearly made my heart stop. I won't give it away, but once again... it's a wonder how Jordan Belfort is still alive.

Think about the way Goodfellas and Casino start. The two films begin with violent acts. With Goodfellas, the three leads are driving in a car with Billy Batts tied up in the trunk. To their surprise, the dude in the trunk is still alive. They pull over, Tommy Devito continually stabs him, finishing the job. From the beginning, Goodfellas warns you that violence will be very prominent throughout. The same is true with Casino. That film opens with Sam Rothstein starting up his car and instantly becoming engulfed in flames. Remember: neither film attempts to cast any kind of moral judgment on these characters. The fates of Tommy Devito, Jimmy Conway, Henry Hill, Sam Rothstein, and Nicky Santoro are all related to the world they live in. Devito's irresponsible actions catch up to him in the end. Hill, Conway, and Rothstein all wind up in some form of purgatory.

Jordan Belfort? He's still alive, he speaks at seminars, he still makes a healthy living. Again, the jail time he served was relatively minimal compared to what he deserved. And how does The Wolf of Wall Street begin? Not with a car explosion, not with a stabbing, but with a midget-tossing contest. The Wolf of Wall Street shows what happens when criminals live in a world with such minimal consequences. All three films depict morally questionable characters attempting to live their own version of the "American dream," by the end of Goodfellas and Casino, those characters live in a world where their behavior no longer becomes acceptable. In Wolf of Wall Street, this lifestyle is still going strong. If anything, it's gotten worse. We hear endless amounts of cases of fraud in this industry, just Google "microcap stock fraud" for proof.

Martin Scorsese once again proves that he's the only filmmaker who can make a movie like this. For the third time, he has put his stamp on the "historical epic crime film." He stuffs Goodfellas, Casino, and Wolf with so much information and the films display such an endless amount of bravura that you cannot help but watch. It's been forty years since Scorsese broke out with Mean Streets and he has continually proven that he is one of America's greatest filmmakers. Whether or not The Wolf of Wall Street will rank among his best will be debated for years to come, but it is undoubtedly one of his most challenging and rewarding films.

Grade: A

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