Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

 Grade: 95/A

There’s a scene in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in which a drunken Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) encourages the members of his party to engage in an orgy with Nadia (Nadia Gray) before they come up with an even crazier idea, as they stick pillow feathers to a half-naked woman. The sequence marked the apex of the film’s depiction of decadence, of Marcello’s soul-destroying behavior, and of a bacchanalian world.

Martin Scorsese has cited Fellini as an influence in the past, but The Wolf of Wall Street might take that influence to its most extreme level, extending Fellini’s finale to feature-length. The film follows very much in the style of Goodfellas and especially Casino, another film about excess, but the men in those films look positively restrained in their behavior compared to the stock market thugs here. It’s a film about being stuck in an amoral mindset, one where hurting people is just a stepping stone to indulging in an insatiable appetite. It’s capitalism at its crassest, most disgusting, and most fascinating.

The film is based off the story and autobiography of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aspiring stockbroker and a hell of a salesman. When his first boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), encourages him to “move the client’s money into your pocket” and indulge in as much cocaine, hookers, and masturbation as he can stomach, he’s ready to meet the challenge. But just as he gets his stockbroker license, Black Monday hits, and he’s out of a job.

Belfort moves to a smaller firm where he can get a 50% commission selling penny stocks, and winds up taking the game to a new level as he and his troops (P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Ethan Suplee, Brian Sacca, Martin Klebba, and Jonah Hill as his even more amoral right-hand man Donnie Azoff) defraud countless Americans out of the money as they earn millions a day. Now, they can do as many drugs and buy as many women as they want, but as their habits get out of control and they rip off more people, FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts closing in on Belfort and company.

The Wolf of Wall Street has been met with more slightly more polarizing responses than one might expect, but that should be seen as encouraging rather than forbidding. Many of Scorsese’s best films have been met with equal degrees criticism as acclaim: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and Goodfellas have all been received both as masterpieces and as disgusting depictions of repellent, sometimes violent men with no redeeming value (and that’s nothing to say of the firestorm that greeted The Last Temptation of Christ). It’s inspiring that the director can make a film that’s as controversial and potentially alienating as it is formally exciting.

And formally exciting it is. Scorsese throws out all of the stops in The Wolf of Wall Street: freeze frames on tossed dwarves, long tracking shots through crowds of chanting brokers, tight close-ups on heavy drug use, slow motion scenes of DiCaprio and Hill strung out on qualuudes, and enough fourth-wall breaking narration from DiCaprio to make us as charmed and fascinated by Belford as we are disgusted by him. At just a minute shy of three hours (and a minute over Casino to be his longest narrative feature), The Wolf of Wall Street is almost exhausting, but Scorsese makes it gloriously excessive and exhausting with some of his most vibrant filmmaking in years. We’re on sensory overload here for a world of sensory overload.

That said, Scorsese is also still one of the best directors of actors alive, and he’s assembled one hell of an ensemble here. All of the brokers are enjoyably unethical and sleazy, and there’s great supporting turns from Jean Dujardin (as an unscrupulous Swiss banker), Jon Bernthal (as Belfort’s drug dealer buddy), Rob Reiner (as Belfort’s eternally apoplectic father), and especially McConaughey in a five-minute turn that’ll rank as one of the great cinematic one-scene wonders. Australian actress Margot Robbie is particularly memorable as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, a trophy wife who’s first turned on, then wearied by her husband’s behavior.

The standout supporting performance comes from Hill, whose improvisational gifts get their best test here and help add to what’s the blackest and funniest comedy of the year (the guiltiest laugh I’ve had all year comes from his line about what he’d do with if he had a mentally retarded kid). As Donnie, a Jewish guy who’s tried to look as WASPy as possible (shiny choppers, horn-rimmed glasses, sweater combinations), he does whatever he can to match his boss’s debauchery. He’s an unpredictable presence, the one guy in the movie who might be a little too weird even for someone as depraved as Jordan Belfort.

Gangs of New York aside, DiCaprio’s collaboration with Scorsese has yielded some of his best work, but he tops himself as Belfort, the Crazy Glue that holds the movie together. DiCaprio’s previous films with Scorsese often saw him as a man pulled at all sides, ready to fall apart at any moment. Wolf sees that, but it also mixes in the charm he showed in Titanic, Catch Me if You Can, and the early parts of The Aviator with a newer, more deranged side that’s as funny as it is unsettling.  The monologues he gives to his disciples could serve as a Bible for future Gordon Gekko wannabe douchebags, a portrait of the most undisciplined side of the American Dream. And that’s not even taking into account the actor’s previously untapped comedic gifts, which culminate in a physical slapstick scene involving some particularly potent Quaaludes that’ll likely go down as the funniest scene in Scorsese’s oeuvre.

There’s a lingering question of what Scorsese wants us to think of all of these creeps, with some of the film’s detractors suggesting that he’s made this world attractive. That might depend on one’s perspective of whether the endless parties, fuckfests and drug benders look like a personal heaven or hell. But it’s Scorsese’s lack of moralism that makes The Wolf of Wall Street work. He trusts us to find Belfort and his cronies to be the self-serving schmucks that they are, and to see how Belfort’s downfall comes with relative unrepentance, a view that he went out and achieved while the poor couldn’t hack it, a view that’s enabled by the government’s treatment of him. Sure, he and many of his contemporaries went to prison, but they’re still rich, and they’re still selling their view to the world. We’re the suckers who still buy it.

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