Friday, January 03, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

There are one or two moments in Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street where Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the whiz kid/con artist behind the Stratton Oakmont brokerage, starts  to explain the details of financial transactions to the audience in narration delivered straight to the camera. Then, with an aw shucks smile, he stops with an acknowledgement that even if we understood we probably wouldn’t care. What we really want to see are the parties.  The Wolf of Wall Street is based on Belfort’s own account of his career on Wall Street, where after getting laid off as a result of the 1987 market crash he learned to convince suckers to invest in penny stocks and started Stratton Oakmont. Belfort and his colleague Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) lived lives of ridiculous excess until Belfort’s eventual indictment and conviction on a host of securities fraud charges. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter are very, very detailed about the behavior that Belfort’s money allowed him to enjoy, and your tolerance for The Wolf of Wall Street will depend upon how much you think the filmmakers are interested in the question of Belfort’s level of awareness of the damage he caused.

The “plot” of The Wolf of Wall Street can be summed up quickly. After Belfort gets a lesson in the ways of Wall Street from broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a glorious cameo) he strikes out on his own out of necessity and then once the feds close in must hide money in Switzerland with the help of his wife’s aunt (Joanna Lumley) and a slimy banker (Jean Dujardin). The rest of the 3-hour running time is filled out with Belfort’s parties, cavorting with hookers, and drug use. There’s a certain way in which The Wolf of Wall Street can be viewed as  continuance of Scorsese’s interest in illicit subcultures, from the Mafia in Goodfellas to The Gangs of New York to most of 1970’s New York City in Taxi Driver. Yet in those films Scorsese and his collaborators took the time to chart an emotional journey, while here he and Winter never crack the surface of Belfort. The only thing that penetrates is Belfort’s need, whether it’s for money, drugs, or sex with his wife (Margot Robbie) or a host of other women. Leonardo DiCaprio is magnetic is the role of Jordan Belfort, all of his charm is at work in the service of a character who’s most selfless gesture is warning a colleague that he’s wearing a wire. Yet when the credits rolled I didn’t understand how the kid who watched Mark Hanna openly snort cocaine in a restaurant turned into the man doing blow off the body parts of women and paying a secretary ten grand to get her head shaved in front of the entire office. Was the real Stratton Oakmont this uniformly committed to excess? Belfort shows no real interest in that secretary or any of the people working under him except for Jonah Hill’s Donnie. As I was walking out of the theater my companion and I wondered if Hill was wearing a prosthetic mouth piece but now I think he may have been wearing a prosthetic body. Hill commits to being weird, sexually ambiguous, and unpleasant and winds up giving the best performance of his career. If only the rest of the movie had cut as deeply.

The Wolf of Wall Street would have been more relevant if it had been released about 3 years ago and reached more people if it had been 40 minutes shorter but it is full of small pleasures. McConaughey gives a bravura performance and there’s a shot of energy every time Rob Reiner shows up as Belfort’s father. Kyle Chandler (as an FBI agent) does a remarkable dance with DiCaprio in his central scene and gets to use his decency in new ways. There are plenty of acting fireworks in The Wolf of Wall Street but also too much deference to the source material. Scorsese and Winter end their film with Belfort on the comeback trail but they should have ended with a bit more evidence of their own presence.

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