ac9585a9dfb1448cb087e3771249d106

DiCaprio was born to do this.

The Wolf of Wall Street is another in the series of controversial, but wholly awesome, movies released in 2013. Like Spring Breakers (and actually a great companion piece to it), it is being chalked up by the odiously politically correct as some sort of glorification of the debauchery, violence, and criminal acts that it portrays. The reality is a lot more complicated than that. The complexity of the tendencies for humans to succumb to greed and amorality is very much a theme of the film. To not notice this is to simply refute the very presence of complexity in favor of presumably comforting fictions about moral absolutes or the ever-present notion that depiction equals endorsement.

I’m into the complexity of this. I’m into how it shows the audience the destructive consequences of these lifestyles, including legal ramifications, while also inviting the audience to think about how society is complicit in the behavior of wretched men and women. Spring Breakers and The Counselor both contain the same accusation that Wolf makes. People get away with this shit because we let them. Because we celebrate greed and debauchery and exploitation. Though those other two films are focused on their own specific areas, Wolf shoots straight for the single greatest social and political issue of our time: the consequences of unregulated capitalism.

Martin Scorsese is in his 70’s and is still the master. It helps that his complex, thematically nuance film is wrapped in an entertaining, funny, scathing, and energetic cinematic package. This is a three hour long movie that moves like it’s half as long. It’s a remix of Goodfellas in the best possible ways. It’s got great performances from reliable master actors, and surprisingly deft performances from newcomers or the less seasoned. Ignore the misguided haters, they’ve got preconceived notions and confirmation biases, and see this for yourself. Listen carefully to the thesis delivered by Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) and how it underlines that even legal stock trading is an exploitative enterprise. Watch those faces at the very end of the film, those hungry pathetic faces, who know what Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has done but do not care. They want to be rich.

You, me, everyone we know. We’d all like to be rich on some level. We all have lengths we’d be willing to go to get there. We can all feel, in spite of ourselves, the degenerative fun of some of the things Belfort and his friends do. Scorsese is asking us how far is too far. He’s inviting us to see where our lines are and use that realization to feed back into an awareness of the things we did laugh at or find amusing. The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street-Trailer3

McConaughey kills it in his key scene.

The film introduces us to Jordan Belfort, a real guy, when he’s at the height of his riches. Then it peels that back and shows us how he started out. He wants to be a broker, but he’s still under the impression that the business is about making trades that enrich everyone, not just the company he works for. Hanna disabuses him of that notion straight away, giving him a taste of the “Masters of the Universe” arrogance which seems necessary to maintain the lifestyle these people build for themselves. Substance abuse, greed, and stepping over other people in a race to the top… that’s the code.

From his upbringing in Queens, Belfort has a group of friends he hires for his own company. This comes after he learns that there’s a trade in “penny stocks” where the commissions are huge. To begin with, he uses his bright white collar high-pressure sales techniques to convince regular people to blow their savings on shitty companies. He takes home 50%. Then he builds his own million dollar company on this basis, along with some insider trading with his close friends, and the law eventually comes calling.

Belfort’s crime is to sell people on a lie. But it’s not really a lie, not for men like him who are inner circle enough to make it a reality. It’s a lie for the blue collar types he exploits. They think they’re going to bet $4000 and come away with twice that. They think they’re going to blitz through their mortgages, car payments, etc because Belfort and his cronies have convinced them to trust and believe or they’re cowards, losers, and dupes.

new-wolf-of-wall-street-trailer-leonardo-dicaprio-is-the-wealthiest-stockbroker-in-the-world

The boat scene with Belfort and Denham (Kyle Chandler) is amazing.

But how Belfort made this all work isn’t the fascinating thing. It’s that it works at all. It’s that his company, many of whom literally have their lives in his hands because of how he does business, worship him. It’s the power and sway that come with all that money, and the kind of boredom that it entreats. Watching him go from fucking hookers to having lit candles up his ass. That’s the fascinating thing. The entertainment and sheer slapstick inventiveness of the ur-Quaalude scene is counter-balanced by his breakdown when his wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie, expect to see a lot more of her) finally gets tired of his shit. We can laugh as Belfort struggles to get home while profoundly high and then be angry and unforgiving when he punches his wife in the stomach.

But even she is complicit. She knows about the money smuggling, the illegality of what her husband does, but she stands by and lives the life of the “duchess” that he has crafted for her and trapped her in. Until it’s all become untenable, of course. Everyone around Belfort is like this, and the film reminds us of the dangerous temptation of money far more than it celebrates the crazy shit you can get up to when you have it.

Complexity.

The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street-Trailer7a

Margot Robbie has one of the breakout performances of the year.

That said, I think Scorsese is fascinated by the fact that people, by and large, seem to want to live like this. Otherwise, why do we put up with it? Why do we not punish people like Belfort more harshly? The scene where he actually goes to prison and… plays tennis should tell you everything you need to know about the relative morality of Wolf. This is a film that only passes judgment subtly. It tells its story and lets us decide for ourselves. If, seeing all of this, we remain the zombie-like faces in Belfort’s sales seminar at the end, then what the fuck. Maybe Scorsese and writer Terrence Winter intended to piss people off and get angry letters because their film isn’t moralistic enough. It seems likely.

But it’s really unfair to consider this film to be a glorification or celebration of these people.

wows-03

Jonah Hill proves that Moneyball was not a fluke.

I think that this film would ruffle less feathers if it wasn’t so damn timely. This all hits close to home considering the recent history. Wealth gaps and the seemingly unassailable nature of Wall Street is very much on peoples’ minds. Therefore, there’s a sense to which the uproar about this movies “message” is ironic. If anything, The Wolf of Wall Street may feel cathartic for those looking for a case where a white collar thief actually had to face up to his crimes. It’s an indictment of the culture that makes that facing up relatively easy to bear (tennis!) and then not much of a thing at all as Belfort remains a successful motivational speaker. It’s that the other stuff in his life, his marriages and friendships, go so wrong that we find the cautionary nature of his degenerative, exploitative life. Belfort did care about that stuff, at least in the film, but he loved the money and power more. The drugs too.

There is also the extent to which Wolf should serve as a huge “what the fuck” moment for people who relate this story to the ones in our headlines now, realizing that less than 20 years later and we no longer really put these people in jail. Instead, they get bailouts. Yes, there’s a difference between Belfort and other Wall Street firms but recall Mark Hanna and his exposure of the fundamental ethic of the stock trade. The difference isn’t that big because the principles are the same.

The Wolf of Wall Street-20120925-21

It’s sort of weird that DiCaprio happened to play two megarich and charming assholes this year.

Even if I put aside the argument that what’s going on in Wolf is far more complicated than a celebration of Wall Street and stock broker culture, there’s a lot to love about this film. I do think its substance is in how it relates to topics we’re pretty much all aware of and emotional about (usually angry) at this point. But it can’t be denied that this is a film full of the technical and artistic functions which, more than the thematic substance, coalesce into a masterpiece.

The performances alone are simply fucking nuts. Margot Robbie, Jonah Hill, Jon Bernthal, Kyle Chandler, and especially DiCaprio are all delivering amazing work. For DiCaprio, it’s career best. He’s showing more range, energy, and fun in this performance than he ever has before. He’s done a lot of more serious characters recently, but The Wolf of Wall Street gets past just the charm he effortlessly exudes (see The Great Gatsby for a performance more reliant on that) as well as the childlike innocence and lands on comedian. DiCaprio’s performance is easily one of the funniest of the year. That’s the power of this movie. You may not like Belfort very much, and you shouldn’t, but he is relentlessly entertaining and DiCaprio does stuff (the dance, the Quaalude scene, etc) that simply has to be seen to be believed.

I saw The Wolf of Wall Street a day or two too late to include it in my Top 15 list but my final word on the film is that it definitely, definitely would have been on that list. Although I’ve taken the stance that it is a complex treatment on its subject, I’m very open to the arguments either way. I think you could make an argument that it’s a dangerous sort of film, mostly because it can be so easily misunderstood (like Fight Club or Scarface were in their time). But I think that’s part of the point. Scorsese isn’t interested in saying “this guy is a piece of shit, don’t like him”. He understands that Belfort may be a piece of shit, but there’s appeal in the abandon with which he lives. There’s a sort of existential freedom once you’re passed the event horizon of society’s standards. That’s a dangerous thing, with dangerous appeal, and it is useful to have a peek into the lives of people who presumably get there, feel that, and carry on or not.

Advertisements