Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"The Wolf of Wall Street"

 4 / 5 

Is there anyone who will be surprised when it all comes crashing down again? Those of us who aren't old enough to remember October 1928 may remember October 1987.  Or the spring of 2000.  Or the fall of 2008.

Yet, here we are again, cheering the rise of the stock market as if everyone's getting rich.  We glorify IPOs when they succeed, jeer them when they fail, and measure the health of just about everything by how much the stock market rises or falls.

It's almost like we didn't learn anything in 1928, and again 59 years later, and twice more in the two decades after that.  Las Vegas and Atlantic City are sucker bets, but Wall Street -- well, Wall Street is legitimate, investing money in stocks and 401(k) funds is what smart, educated people do.

Yeah, well, just remember, the house always wins.

In Martin Scorsese's prodigiously entertaining satire The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) runs the house.  He's a swindler, a hustler, a con artist and he passed his Series 7 to prove it. He'll sweet-talk anyone to sell just about anything -- wait, make that absolutely anything, even his threadbare honor in the end.

Belfort has the misfortune to begin his career as a stockbroker on Black Monday: October 19, 1987, the day the party ended.  Back then, anyone with a taste for money went to Wall Street, because the opportunity to make a fast buck was everywhere.  The jig was up in '87, but not everyone wanted to believe it.  Belfort wasn't ready to let go of the drug-addled, sex-fueled, suspender-and-sunglasses days of the Eighties, not after learning the kinds of tricks he learned from his mentor, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a small but disturbing role).

Belfort didn't plan on it that way, according to the movie.  He was just about ready to earn a semi-honest buck when he stumbled onto a scheme to sell penny stocks and proved that his natural talents, such as they were, lay in parting money from people.

One problem: the shady little outfit he starts working for insists on doing things the hard way, three or four bucks at a time.  Only after stumbling onto a strange, rotund, drug-addicted blowhard named Danny Porush (Jonah Hill) does he really get things moving into high gear -- starting a company designed expressly to target the richest people in America and hustle them.

It works brilliantly.  Awash in money, drugs (Quaaludes are his preference) and more hookers per square foot than a political convention in a snowstorm, Belfort epitomizes the over-the-top excess that we'd like to believe ended in the '80s.  Except it didn't, not by a long shot -- it just got overshadowed by the Internet investment schemes, electronic trading and real-estate bubble that created widespread economic ruin, while ensuring people like Belfort remained very, very rich.

The Wolf of Wall Street is the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities wanted to be.  That movie was a disaster, adding a high-gloss, upscale sophistication to its attempts to satirize the "Master of the Universe" mindset.  It was too polite and unaware of the long-term ramifications.

The Wolf of Wall Street is anything but polite.  It's profane, it's borderline pornographic at times, and it comes complete with all the hyperactivity of its famously fidgety director.  The movie never slows down for a minute, careening from Manhattan to Long Island to Brooklyn to Italy to Switzerland to England with such manic zeal it's impossible not to be entertained.

In DiCaprio, Scorsese has found a game actor willing to do just about anything; he'll bury his face in a hooker's ass and snort cocaine, he'll use shocking and debasing language, he'll howl like the wolfman and still make us believe every moment -- DiCaprio is nothing short of astonishing.  DiCaprio has always been a fine actor, but who knew he had the knack of physical comedy?  A scene involving some outdated Quaaludes and a pay phone in a posh country club has to be one of the funniest, finest in any movie released this year.

Hill is equally revelatory, flashing a bizarre, bleached-white smile and managing to be equally smarmy, disgusting and lovable.  The rest of the massive cast is fine, too, especially Kyle Chandler as the not-necessarily-goody-two-shoes FBI agent who doesn't yield in his chase.

But, here's the thing: Satire only goes so far unless it manages to make a point, and it's dubious if The Wolf of Wall Street ever does.  Are Scorsese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter, in awe of Belfort?  Do they think he and his kind are the bane of society?  It's never entirely clear, and the final moments of the film don't quite hit their mark: I wasn't sure whether the movie was honoring or damning Belfort, who, after all, wrote the book on which the film is based and even appears in it briefly.

For a good two of its three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is mind-bogglingly good, but the final hour seems unfinished, not nearly as incisive, smart or frankly damning as what preceded it.

I wanted to walk away feeling something deeply -- whether anger or a grudging admiration.  The movie got me there, filled me with both astonished amusement and a certain righteous anger, then left me dangling.  But, hey, if you're gonna have to dangle, you might as well at least have a memorable ride up, and The Wolf of Wall Street is certainly that.


As a side note: Why in the world would The Wolf of Wall Street not have received an NC-17 rating?  There is absolutely no reason anyone under 17 would need to see this movie or, arguably, should see it.  Not only would a teenager almost certainly find nothing in it remotely enjoyable, but this is a movie that doesn't shy away from mind-boggling depictions of sex and drug use.  The profanity is nothing if not noteworthy.  In context, that makes it a dizzyingly entertaining movie, one made by adults for adults.  There's nothing at all wrong with the concept of a movie that is off-limits to younger children, and if the MPAA believes that Frozen deserves a PG rating for "some action and mild rude humor," then there seems no way to justify the R rating given to The Wolf of Wall Street.  There is virtually nothing in this film that a parent would find suitable for a child under 17 years old. And there's nothing wrong with that, either.  It's outlandishly fun to watch, but the R rating is a bit mystifying.

Viewed Dec. 31, 2013 -- Laemmle NoHo


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