Friday, December 27, 2013

WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?: Martin Scorsese torches the American Dream in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET


As loaded and over the top as that word might be, it keeps popping up in my mind as the first one I’d use to describe the exhilarating, profanely funny, warped, epic, megalomaniacal acid trip fantasia, cinematic shotgun blast to the face that is Martin Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

Now you all know the knock on modern-day Marty, or at least, oh let’s say, post-GOODFELLAS/CASINO nexus Scorsese.  That he stopped making personal films a long time ago.  That even though he’s arguably the most respected and lauded modern day American director, he can’t get projects made without $100 million budgets and mega-star Leo attached to them.  That he long ago resigned himself to this reality and started making prestige pictures that were essentially extended tributes to past genres and directors (the visual mini-film history of THE AVIATOR, the Val Lewton gothic horror of SHUTTER ISLAND, the silent film tribute of HUGO.)  That none of these films holds a candle to the raw power of TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, RAGING BULL.

And you might even be able to wring some truth out of those criticisms.  But hey, it’s Hollywood.  How many major directors not named Spielberg, Lucas or Cameron maintain a sizeable amount of control after their prime years?

Well critics, I’d like to introduce you to the Martin Scorsese of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, who’s taken a pre-sold property that almost didn’t feature his directing skills and molded it into an epic modern masterpiece that ranks among some of the best work of his career.  Working for the first time with lensman Rodrigo Prieto, but also once again with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese imbues Terence Winter’s ace script with a zest and verve that feels like the work of an artist 20-30 years his junior.  Or, more accurately, like the director of GOODFELLAS and CASINO hopped up on some powerful speed. 

Remember the legendary Sunday May 11th, 1980 scene in GOODFELLAS, the manic, coke-fuelled microcosm of Henry Hill’s encroaching paranoia that serves as his last day as a truly free man?  THE WOLF OF STREET does it one better.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET does it three hours better. 

But whereas GOODFELLAS so richly chronicled the rise of Henry Hill by seducing the audience with the same enticing, erotic allure with which the mob life seduced him, before descending into the degraded personal hell of betrayal and addiction, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET marries the heady rush of Jordan Belfort’s ascent to power with that same coke binge mentality at the genetic level.  And on a literal level.

For it’s the ubiquitous white powder that fuels the lives of Belfort and his army of stock hustlers and the tone of the film.  The first half of WOLF, in particular, is an almost non-stop race to the bottom, each scene an ever-escalating master class in giddy depravity.  The cutting is as New Wave-influenced as some of the more propulsive moments of THE DEPARTED.  And the soundtrack is littered with amped up versions of classic tunes.  Ahmad Jamal’s fleet cover of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” underscores Belfort’s extravagant gift of jewelry to his wife, one of the first fruits of his newly scammed success.  Me First and the Gimme Gimmes turn Brian Wilson’s jaunty “Sloop John B” into a ferocious punk anthem for a yacht scene. And The Lemonheads’ accelerated version of “Mrs. Robinson” narrates the final bust of Belfort’s empire.  The lyrics accompanying Belfort’s bus ride to jail?  “Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.”  By the time that Devo burst into the room with “Uncontrollable Urge”, it feels almost elementary. 

And make no mistake about it: this is also some of the funniest, darkly comedic work that Scorsese has ever produced.  It’s telling that the dwarf-tossing scene that opens the picture is only the beginning of the delirious hijinks.  In the hands of the revelatory Jonah Hill (who twists his typical screen persona into a henchman straight out of Hieronymous Bosch) and the resurgent Matthew McConaughey,  Winter’s script sizzles with a comic fury.  And special mention should also be made of P.J. Byrne, who turns in a less flashy, but equally hilarious performance as Belfort aide Rugrat, a total loser who’s elevated to demi-rock star by the Jordan manual for success.

But at the heart of the insanity is Leonardo Dicaprio, who gives the performance of his career as the charismatic moral vacuum that is Jordan Belfort.  I’ve long been ambivalent about Leo, especially during his run with Scorsese.  He’s routinely shown a willingness to champion challenging projects (indeed, WOLF has been his baby for a long while), and he brings a charged intensity to most of his roles.  But he’s also tended to fall back on tired ticks and mannerisms, too often gritting his teeth and flaring his eyes to convey intensity and anger in a manner that recalls some of the worst excesses of Tom Cruise.

But in the Jordan Belfort of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leo has found a character whose very existence is rooted in the overly theatrical, the wildly mannered.  He’s constantly hustling the world with alpha male displays of devilish charm or thunderous pep rally speeches to the assembled troops.  Or with direct seduction of the audience, breaking the fourth wall to impart insider’s advice on the good life (and even reassuring us that, naw, we don’t really need the fine details of an IPO or how his scam works.)  Henry Hill and Ace Rothstein also spoke directly to the audience, but the former was gradually plagued by his conscience and the latter remained a fascinating emotional cipher.  But Jordan is like Don Draper living in the pitch meeting 24/7.  DiCaprio also shows himself to be a gifted physical comedian, especially in the long march to the sea that is his epic Quaalude bender near the ¾ mark of the narrative, in which he has to roll down a set of stairs, crawl into his Ferrari Lamborghini(which appears to devour him whole in one of the film’s keenest visual metaphors) and eventually lumber his way toward a choking Jonah Hill (the solution for which might be WOLF’s comic highlight.)

Damn, is the whole thing an intoxicating brew of graphic sex with models, the finest drugs that money can buy and rock rock rock rock ROCK around the clock!

The film is set on Wall Street in the past.  What does it say about the world today?
Terence Winter: How history repeats itself and how we’re not learning from our mistakes.  I mean, it’s just holding a mirror up to what’s still going on.
Martin Scorsese: It goes back to what the concept of America is.  Yes, you can have extraordinary opportunities.  But is it a place where the main opportunities are to get rich or about human rights?  Is it about a sense of freedom, a pursuit of happiness, or is it just about getting rich?
(The Hollywood Reporter/December 13, 2013)

And yet……and yet……there’s the inevitable comedown.  And the reality behind the coke dream.  The second half of the film takes on the mannerisms of the Quaalude/coke mix that begins to define the lives of Belfort Inc.  We get the hints of the slit wrists and heart attacks that claim the lives of some of the most loyal members of the entourage.  The narrative pacing grows slack, snaps back into full speed ahead, then goes slack again.

And the ultimate comedown is the realization that Scorsese and company have crafted a tale that, underneath its amphetamine frenzy surface, is a brutal indictment of the myths that we as a society have bought into.  To quote the extended trailer for DAWN OF THE DEAD: “It is a horrible, hauntingly accurate vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad.”  For years, America has told itself that it’s had enough of the wheeler dealers who, every decade or so, abscond with retirement investments or blow out the housing market.  And then a new generation of Gordon Gekko wannabes comes along and the plot repeats itself (to quote another film within a film from this holiday season: “Can't put me finger on what lies in store, / But I fear what's to happen all happened before.”). 

And, sadly, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET will probably be seen by some of these same people as the ultimate party movie of the decade.  In its recent profile of the real life Belfort, New York magazine hit upon this essential dichotomy: former prison mate Tommy Chong marvels at the legendary tales of excess without mentioning the lives that Jordan helped to annihilate, and the FBI agent who ultimate busted him (played by Kyle Chandler in the film) admits that even though he considers his relatively short jail term to be “a slap in the face”, he still occasionally has lunch with him (“He tells a good story.”)  We’ve come to lionize high stakes swindlers like Belfort as modern-day gunslingers, the only guys on the street with the balls to make it big (or, as today’s Jordan tells his admirers, “If you want to be rich, you have to program your mind to be rich.  You have to unlearn all the thoughts that were making you poor…”).

It’s the get rich quick fantasies of this country that enable Jordan Belfort to shoot his way to the top.  Early in the film, there’s a hilarious scene in which DiCaprio schools his new charges in the ways of how to sell a sucker rotten penny stocks by reading from the officially approved Belfort script.  It’s a hilarious bit of business, but the poor schmuck on the other end is still there, betting his mortgage on a ship that will never come in.  We may never hear from him, but the understanding is there: his life will soon go up in smoke.  The film’s dramatic payoff for Belfort, the comeuppance for his crimes, is a fairly short stay in a minimum security white collar prison where he gets to play tennis.  And a cushy landing into the motivational speaker world.  For the rules of the modern American Dream allow for the creation of suave monsters like Jordan.  He’s the spawn of our collective desire for that one last shot at glory.

In THE DEPARTED, Scorsese (along with screenwriter William Monahan) created a modern world where there is no honor among thieves.  Or cops.  Or psychiatrists.  A post-9/11 environment where deception is now the default mode.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET shows that he hasn’t drifted from his convictions.  But just like that Oscar-winning pic, it’s still one hell of a thrill ride on the road to damnation.

*UPDATE* The always erudite Glenn Kenny weighs in on some of the critical reactions to WOLF.  Sometimes, you gotta wonder...


Marc Edward Heuck said...

Among the touches that I love in this movie is that the ending, for me anyway, is very reminiscent of Max Ophuls' LOLA MONTES, in that for as much as Belfort is not in jail and still pretty damned rich, he is somewhat punished for his hubris, as the titular social climber of the earlier film is, by being turned into a virtual carny attraction, with hundreds of groundlings paying money to have direct contact with him. Knowing what a filmic savant Scorsese is, I have to believe the parallel is intentional.

Joe Neff said...

As always, an astute (and totally spot on) observation. A friend also pointed out the mild kinship with the end of CASINO, where the dream of the old Vegas is replaced with an army of amateur hour senior citizens taking over the joint. Like Ace, Jordan is also back in his primal element, even though (as you point out) it's in much degraded form.

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