Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET - Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, directed by Martin Scorsese (179 min.)

A film about excess should be excessive, it should go on and on and indulge itself in the excessive nature of the world it is depicting.  If your movie is about overindulgence and it runs 90 minutes, you've missed the point of your story.  That is what is such a joy about The Wolf of Wall Street, the fact that the  legendary Martin Scorsese is behind the camera and he still packs a punch in his seventies.  At three hours long, Wolf never feels a minute too long considering the circumstances.  That is the magic of the film, how it can feel at once overcooked and just right.  To say Scorsese still packs a punch might be too tame of a description when considering his latest, a grand epic of sex-crazed, drug-addled, money-obsessed hedonism that is the very definition of gluttonous filmmaking.  This one will make even the most jaded filmgoer squirm in their seat at some point along this hellish ride, but one thing is certain, they won't be able to look away.

The film wastes no time showing us the hectic and unkempt life of our antihero, Jordan Belfort, played with a crazed energy by Leonardo DiCapario.  Almost immediately we see him drink, take drugs, inject drugs into a hooker in an interesting way, and try to land a helicopter at his house under the influence of quaaludes.  But then we slow down for a second and start somewhere near the beginning of Belfort's ascent into madness.  As DiCaprio narrates, occasionally speaking to the audience directly, we discover that Belfort was once a wide-eyed twenty something with dreams of doing nothing more than making a healthy living.  He was married to a modest neighborhood girl and he was ambitious.  He even had a job at a legitimate firm for a while, working under Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, sadly underused) as a junior broker until the crash of 1987 sent the firm into the toilet.  Belfort worked under Hanna just long enough to learn the trade, and just long enough to pick up the first of his endless bad habits.

After the crash, Belfort is searching for work and discovers a ragtag outfit in Long Island selling penny stocks to schmucks and losers.  It doesn't take him long to find the angle, work the room, and turn this penny stock machine into a bustling little brokerage firm.  He turns hundreds into thousands into hundreds of thousands.  He catches the eye of a squirrelly character named Donnie Azoff, played with capped white teeth, a husky accent, and garish outfits by Jonah Hill.  On the strength of one paycheck stub, Donnie quits his job at the furniture store and goes to work for Jordan.  Their business grows and grows, and so does their appetite for drugs and women.  Pretty soon the penny stocks have turned into a big time illegal scamming brokerage firm, and Jordan slaps the name Stattford Oakmont on the door to sound prestigious and reel in the big fish.

More than once Belfort addresses the audience directly to try and explain the business side of the scam these goons are running, only to stop himself and remind us none of that really matters.  This isn't a film about the "how," but one about the "what."  Aside from the staples of booze and cocaine, Belfort and Donnie enjoy quaaludes on a daily basis.  They also indulge in cars, clothes, houses, and expensive prostitutes… cheap ones too.  They toss midgets at velcro target boards, they have parades through the office, they bring in monkeys on roller skates, and none of it seems to affect the millions of dollars they are making on a daily basis.  The scenes of debauchery in this film are some of the most grandiose moments of disgusting excess I have ever seen, but the tone Scorsese keeps can't let you do anything more than laugh at these wild idiots.  You laugh, and you shake your head, and you move on to the next bit of insanity.

Eventually Belfort and his cronies catch the attention of the FBI, personified this time around by Kyle Chandler's no nonsense agent.  While they work up a case against Belfort, however, he doesn't slow down.  Not long after kicking his first wife to the curb, Belfort marries a flashy blonde model, Naomi, played by the newcomer Margot Robbie.  That honeymoon is short lived as Jordan's drug and sex addictions get in the way of any matrimonial romances.  While the plot does settle into a groove in the second half, the draw of this film are the episodes of just absurd hedonistic madness.  One episode in particular sticks out to me, involving Jordan trying to get from a Country Club to his home (one mile away) in his Ferrari, all while under the influence of some extremely potent Ludes.  The scene, like so many, stretches well beyond a length anyone would expect, but it works on a maniacally comic level.

Credit Scorsese for knowing his subject and knowing the perfect way to handle these insane events.  He and longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker (who is no doubt in line for another Academy Award) manage to structure this film to maximize the potential of each and every scene.  Cues and references carry us fluidly through a story that would be unbearably disjointed without these masters at the helm.  And the screenplay from Terrence Winter (from the memoirs of Belfort himself) walks a razor's edge of wit and hedonistic brilliance.  Consider the scene where Belfort tries to bribe the FBI without actually bribing them; brilliant writing, and just one of many brilliant moments in the script.

I don't know who The Wolf of Wall Street is for as far as an audience is concerned.  I do know my screening had six to ten walkouts from people expecting a nice Christmas film about the rough times on Wall Street in the 80s.  This is not a family film, not a film for anyone under twenty if you ask me.  The private financing of the picture allowed Scorsese and DiCaprio to push the envelope, but they don't let things get carried away without delivering some of their best work as actor and director.  At just under three hours long, a minute under to be exact, it never slows down long enough for us to even consider the length of some scenes, or the excess at play.  This is a film clearly not for everyone, but one that might be a new American classic a few years down the road, a searing commentary on this countries obsession with "things."  And I'm afraid that says more about America than anything this film tries and gets away with.