Sunday, January 12, 2014

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET - The Success of Excess

Director: Martin Scorsese

Short Version: In the adaptation of Jordan Belfort's auto-bio, Leonardo DiCaprio re-teams with Scorsese in one of the most angry, funny, enraging, and enthralling film experiences of the year. If this movie were made by someone in their 20's, they'd be championed as a bold new vision in the medium - the fact that Scorsese is capable of this at 71 is just astounding.

Long Version: I feel compelled to address the length of the film itself almost immediately. The movie HAD to be this lengthy. At 3 hours, it’s a long sit, but not only does it move by at a quicker pace than most action films released this year, the length utterly integral to how the film demands you approach these characters.

Belfort and his cohorts are schmucks. The film is explicit about this - they start out as schmucks, and the film shows their rise to the echelon of the super-wealthy in the stock market’s pink sheets (and later slightly less repugnant but still ethically-questionable and pretty illegal “REAL” stock shenanigans at Stratton Oakmont), but no matter what their money buys, it can’t buy the “cool” they think it brings. Because even at their most hedonistic, they’re still utter dorks who just happen to have loads of cash. There's a particular scene during a raucous house party where they're surrounded by drugs and women but still acting like high school idiots, punctuated by an incredibly lewd moment featuring Jonah Hill (who's just amazing here) that drives the film's overall point home.

This is why the film is so intent on showing us, again and again, what these people do with their money. Yes, doing drugs and having lots of crazy sex would be fun, and the film doesn't try to make a lie of this fact - these people are definitely having fun. But they’re still contemptible and vacuous and not terribly bright, and the movie is very VERY clear on this. I honestly don’t know how the “glorification” argument can hold any water, considering the disgusting places that DiCaprio is willing to take Belfort, as well as the pratfalls that the character endures for the audience’s entertainment (Lots of actors do a lot of great work here, but it’s Leo’s show from start to stop).

And there’s a lot of entertainment to be had for the viewer. I really can't over-stress how Scorsese is just ON FIRE in the director's chair here, not only capable of imbuing a film about people making phone calls and spending money with as much kinetic energy and enthralling visual storytelling than any action blockbuster this year, but he makes it look easy. There’s a scene in here that reads like Scorsese chuckling recent film-maker following his footsteps in the marrying of pop culture with storytelling, and then showing everyone in the room how it’s REALLY done (the Lemmons scene - you’ll know it when you see it).

There are a lot of comedic moments in this vein, but I’d stop short at calling it an actual comedy. It’s far too angry for that (and goes to a couple places too disturbing), and is in no way interested in letting the audience off the hook in the way a comedy would. It’s not about a great lesson being learned or wrongs being righted, because that’s not what really happened. The final shot makes the viewer absolutely complicit in the attitude that makes it possible for this sort of thing to happen again and again in this country, holding up a mirror to our desires and gullibility.

So in a way, viewers getting mad that these people behaved this way and that society allows - and even CELEBRATES - this sort of excess, speaks to the movie’s quality and the power of storytelling.

Verdict: Alpha

Bonus: Matthew McConaughey in his THIRD great role this year.

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