Thursday, January 9, 2014

Gutter Balls: Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Martin Scorsese’s three-hour, head-crushing The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who loses his job with a big Wall Street firm after the 1987 crash and re-invents himself as a dealer in penny stocks, making a fortune (and soon setting up his own firm) by pitching shares of virtually worthless businesses to strangers on the phone. There is a real Jordan Belfort; the screenplay, by Terence Winter, takes it title and many of its characters and events from Belfort’s autobiography, which describes his rapid rise in the 1990s, his party-hearty lifestyle, and his eventual arrest for stock fraud. At the end of the movie, he has remade himself, yet again, as a motivational speaker. It’s easy to imagine a worse outcome for a guy like this, but when DiCaprio is standing in front of a roomful of shmucks, half-heartedly inviting them to show them what they’ve got and handing around a pen to use as a prop, he has the same dead-eyed, cast-out-of-Eden look as Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill at the end of GoodFelllas.

DiCaprio narrates the story in voice-over, and the actor, who showed unusual sensitivity even as a child actor, is uncharacteristically, grossly over-the-top much of the time, mugging for the camera with his eyes popping and rolling and his tongue literally jammed into his cheek. That’s the first clue that we’re seeing Belfort’s story as he’d like to imagine he lived it—and that he’s an overgrown frat boy and untamed hambone. Starting with the appearance of the blond model who becomes his second wife (Margot Robbie), all the young women who pass through the movie look like airbrushed centerfolds, plastic, poreless and pubeless, and the action grows more whirligig as Belfort becomes more dependent on the various narcotics to which he’s addicted.

The movie has set off a bit of a critical debate over whether Scorsese, by sticking so close to his protagonist’s viewpoint, is winking his approval of his way of life. That may sound na├»ve, and Terence Winter has described Belfort as “a very unreliable narrator.” Having passed through a creative writing class or two, I have experienced the magical awe with which some people respond to that term, but just as it’s possible to make a movie about psycho that is not Taxi Driver, so it is, in fact, possible to put an unreliable narrator at the center of your art work and not automatically create something that’s in the same league as Pale Fire. (I find it unsettling that DiCaprio had any desire to play another unreliable narrator so soon after escaping from the musty maze that was Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.)

Jonah Hill & Leonardo DiCaprio

Making a movie from inside his protagonist’s head is hardly a new thing for Scorsese; back early in his career, he did it in parts of Mean Streets and New York, New York and in most of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But those movies had heroes, or antiheroes, who were angry and frustrated and ferociously dissatisfied with themselves, their situations, and the world in general. In her negative review of Scorsese’s The King of Comedy in The New York Review of Books, Veronica Geng chided Scorsese and his star, Robert De Niro, for failing to recognize that “we can be excited by watching some kinds of crazy people,” like the character De Niro played in Taxi Driver, “but not the affectless ones,” like the one he played in Comedy. As told by Scorsese, Belfort’s life is exciting, all right; it’s one high-pitched climax after another. It’s also the same key being punched, over and over, for three hours. Some of the dialogue is amusing, in a “Drugged-Out Louts with No Filter Say the Darndest Things” kind of way, but it figures that the movie has gotten such great reviews from the kind of critics who insist on a firm demarcation line between mere “movies” and the art form known as “cinema,” because its scenes of kinetic, white-trash-with-money decadence will be especially impressive to those who haven’t sullied their eyeballs with too much TV. When Belfort throws his big party at his seaside mansion and addresses the swim-suited throngs with a microphone, it’s like MTV Beach House: The Movie. The alternate explanation is that some critics would think that MTV Beach House: The Movie must automatically have great artistic and social significance if Martin Scorsese had signed his name to it.

Martin Scorsese directing The Wolf of Wall Street 
The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t provide much in the way of enlightenment regarding the nuts and bolts of high-level white collar crime, and it would never dream of violating the purity of its from-the-donkey’s-mouth point of view by showing us Belfort’s victims and giving some sense of the actual devastation he wrought, either to individuals or to the economy itself. From what the movie shows, the only thing that sets him apart from the other, more tackily dressed hustler working the phones at the boiler room where he first discovers the wonders of penny stocks is that, when he hooks a prospect on the phone, everyone stops what they’re doing to watch him rock, as if he were the hot-footed star of a musical getting his first job at a burlesque club. The Wolf of Wall Street has the enormous scale of a movie that means to make a statement about the dire state of American capitalism, but its specific ingredients are the stuff of frat-house movies. (It bears more than a passing resemblance to Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, which was also a black-comedy true-crime story set inside the heads of swaggering, sexist louts, but that nobody mistook for a statement of any kind, maybe because the characters were small-timers, but probably because it had the words “Directed by Michael Bay in the credits.)

You learned a lot more about the basic mechanics of being a hoodlum, or running a casino, from GoodFellas or Casino that you learn about being a shady stockbroker from The Wolf of Wall Street, which does raise the question, why did Scorsese want to make a three-hour movie about how this asshole sees the world? In the end, he may just think that Belfort’s story deserved to be told on this lavish a canvas because its energy level had the potential to match his own. Maybe it’s inspiring that, in his seventies, Scorsese can still maintain this kind of energy, though he’s done some of his best work when he’s calmed the fuck down, whether in his 1974 documentary about his parents, Italianamerican, or his previous film, Hugo, a children’s story that this famously “personal” filmmaker was able to give himself an emotional stake in by grafting on a heartfelt plea for the cause of classic film restoration. Belfort’s way of seeing turns out to be just what you’d expect; it might be more interesting, and might even be a sign of greater artistry, if it had some variety, some soft tones, a few stray moments that don’t reek of absolute, radioactive macho douchebaggery. One admiring critic has described the experience of watching this movie as like mainlining “pure cinema,” which is a play on one of Belfort’s lines, in which he equates what he does with “mainlining pure adrenaline,” which is, in the end, all that Scorsese seems to want to do in movies like this. After Belfort is the subject of an unflattering article in Forbes, his first wife tells him that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The Wolf of Wall Street can pass for a telling masterpiece for anyone who thinks there’s no such thing as a meaningless adrenaline rush.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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