Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET                B         
USA  (180 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Martin Scorsese       Official site

Adapted from the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a noted stock swindler from the 1990’s, eventually indicted in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering, where he was ordered by the court to pay restitution in the amount of $110 million dollars to those he defrauded, where to date, after spending 22 months in prison, less than $12 million dollars has been recovered.  Reportedly sober since 1998, Belfort has written two memoirs, The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, modeled after the writings of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, both of which, along with the selling of the movie rights, generated about $2 million dollars in proceeds.  The film is largely a reconstruction of his personal life during the heyday of his notorious financial schemes, where at the height of his drug indulgence he was taking 22 different medications, including 20 Quaaludes a day, balanced by cocaine, morphine, Xanax, valium, and anything else he could get his hands on, where his skill, apparently, was being good at balancing them all out.  He flew his own helicopter while high on Quaaludes, sank his 167-foot yacht in the Mediterranean, and drove his unbuckled 3-year old daughter through a garage door while high.  In order to get a reduced sentence, Belfort ratted out his partner, Danny Porush (played by Jonah Hill) who hasn’t spoken to him since, as well as all of his associates.  Porush also went to prison and now runs a medical supply company out of Florida and lives in a $4 million dollar mansion and drives a Rolls-Royce convertible, while Belfort gives self-motivation speeches on the lecture circuit.  While in prison, Belfort was convinced to write his memoirs by his cellmate, none other than Tommy Chong (from Cheech and Chong), who was serving 9 months in jail for selling bongs over the Internet.  One of the embellishments of the film is that Belfort worked on Wall Street, an exaggerated claim to make him look bigger than he really was, where he and his associates come off as fools who made a lot of money without being very smart at all, where this portrayal is more a caricature of a delusional, doped up version of his ridiculous antics that made him an easy target for the FBI.  Despite writing hundreds of pages of self-serving revelations, what’s perhaps most revealing is there’s not an ounce of remorse for the people he swindled.   

While it should be said that once again the use of music in a Scorsese film is utterly sensational, especially the use of Chicago blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, and Willie Dixon, as their hard driving music feels like a harshly realistic underbelly to the lavish comforts of this white Wall Street crime fantasia that is largely a three-hour exposé of a con artist.  Unfortunately the film has the brash feel of a con job itself, as from start to finish, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, an obnoxious, utterly despicable, Wall Street broker wannabe whose only client of interest is serving himself, is continually selling the audience a bit of sleight of hand fakery, as it’s not a performance so much as a satiric mockery of a greedy and insatiable man who can never stop feeding/selling himself 24 hours a day, as this is simply how he presents himself to the world, so hopped up on uppers and downers that nothing about him is real.  While the first person narration has an immediate resemblance to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas (1990), where one of the taglines is “GOODFELLAS Meets Wall Street,” but any resemblance stops there, as this is more like “ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) Meets Wall Street,” as the main characters are continually stuck in a state of permanent adolescence.  Another film for an Attention Deficit Disorder American culture that thrives on narcissism, reflecting a kind of exaggerated self indulgence rarely seen on display, where much of it plays out like a Ken Russell fantasia, or even an extension of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby in Baz Lurhmann’s extravagant 1920’s world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2013).  In each, the story is about the corrosive effects of wealth and the emptiness of the decadent lifestyle, where the world of luxurious wealth on display is a shell game that is eventually exposed as a sham, leaving behind little more than a man disgraced, destroyed by immorality and the continuing effects of drugs and alcohol.

While the film can be highly entertaining, it also never stops being ridiculous, where the biggest problem is the monotonous repetition of tone, which literally repeats itself for three hours, where the entire world is a façade, and no one for a single moment is ever believable, so while there is exaggerated character on display in Belfort and his associates, there is no character development, as they remain in the same self-centered mode throughout the film.  Unlike Mel Brooks’s THE PRODUCERS (1967) which is a hilarious musical farce about two greedy men that can’t help themselves, even after they’re imprisoned, this one stops being funny after awhile when the audience grows tired of the same profanity-laden shtick, where guys are continually yelling and swearing at one another, where their idea of living the good life in the 90’s is over-consumption of Quaaludes and cocaine mixed with heavy doses of alcohol, while also having non-stop sex with strippers, often several women at the same time.  There is never any intimacy, any growing relationship, or even a hint of love, as it’s all a grotesque display of lies, betrayal, and overindulgence.  While Belfort wasn’t born rich, he did learn how to steal by generating a continual stream of new commissions on otherwise worthless stocks from one of the best brokerage houses on Wall Street, tutored by none other than Matthew McConaughey, an off-the-wall broker that mixes cocaine, martini’s, and masturbation to reach the perfect state of relaxation for such a high pressure job.  His approach is replicated throughout the film, as new hires are little more than cheerleaders for this foolproof system where everybody gets rich except the investing customers.  When the FBI gets wind of what they’re doing, Belfort is hounded throughout by special agent Denham, Kyle Chandler, where Belfort flaunts his money in their face in a gesture of invincibility, but he becomes so consumed with making money that it literally becomes his way of life, where scamming others is what he does for a living, so why not flaunt it?    

This fantasia of wealth includes all the usual suspects, an immense mansion in the most prized real estate area on Long Island’s Gold Coast, a luxury yacht, a Lamborghini sports car (in real life it was a Mercedes), Swiss bank accounts, and all the amenities, including a nonstop array of strippers, recreational drugs, and sex, where he literally trades in his wife for a newer model, much as one does for a newer model car, marrying the supermodel of his dreams, Naomi (Margot Robbie), a blond bombshell trophy wife with a similar appetite for kinkiness and the finer things in life.  They are the model party animal couple of ultimate extravagance, sailing the seven seas on an immense yacht, where often the tone of the film will revert into a satiric mode, where the lifestyle of the rich and famous is flaunted into the face of the audience, where the fantasy is often indistinguishable from the reality, as it’s one and the same.  The playful use of music is the most original aspect of the film, where out of control cultural overindulgence is often expressed by punk covers of earlier pop songs, like the Lemonheads - Mrs Robinson YouTube (3:27), or Devo’s own Devo - Uncontrollable Urge - From Urgh! A Music War HQ YouTube (3:06).  There seem to be plenty of badly improvised moments, especially between DiCaprio and his sidekick Jonah Hill, much of it expressing the surreal effects of drug use, using way over the top physical comedy, but it’s all layered in a tone of silly lightheartedness, as if there’s little or no comprehension of moral consequences, where the lifestyles of conniving, overprivileged businessmen are maintained by paying the right people off to look the other way, including the police, all so they can continue their delusions about needing to be the center of attention without ever having to deal with any moral accountability.  In many ways, this film is strangely reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012), especially the mocking tone and the use of a surreal dream landscape to reflect a netherworld where all moral boundaries have been crossed.  The problem with both films is the bombastic style of filmmaking, both anthems to cultural narcissism and self-indulgence, where the exhilarating rush of excess through grandiose artificial stylization is just as obscene and hyperinflated as the depraved subject matter depicted onscreen, where a two-bit con artist becomes a legendary cultural figurehead for a day, a kind of rebellious Ferris Bueller anti-hero who bucks the establishment, where the film so completely identifies with the soulless lifestyle that it’s eventually as spiritually void and heartless as the culture it rails against.    

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