Friday, January 3, 2014

Wolf of Wall Street

So it turns out that Leonardo DiCaprio made two versions of The Great Gastsby this year - one directed by Baz Lurhmann (reviewed here) and the other directed by Martin Scorsese.  Okay, not entirely.  But The Wolf of Wall Street does have some similarities with Gatsby beyond DiCaprio playing the title character in both films. The Wolf of Wall Street is DiCaprio's fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese and it's a successful one.  DiCaprio grabs the role of the amoral stockbroker Jordan Belfort by the throat and he's aided by an incredible supporting cast, including Jonah Hill as Belfort's long-time associate-in-crime and Margot Robbie as his second wife, Naomi.  Deftly directed by Scorsese, Wolf is nevertheless running into some resistance.

Scorsese has always been interested in telling stories of extreme characters and (often) showing extreme violence.  Wolf has little violence (there's some, mind you, and it's meant to be disturbing) but the film is extreme in other ways.  For one, it has broken the record for use of the "F-word" in an American feature film (506, for those of you who are counting).  There is also rampant drug use and enough nudity to make Ron Jeremy blush.  (OK, not really. But there's a lot.)  If any of those things make you uncomfortable, stay home.

DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort is a self-described degenerate and he was in the right place at the right time to amass enough money to choke a team of Clydesdales without actually producing a thing.  That's the real addiction, Belfort tells us (as Gatsby also might) - money.  Belfort is, no doubt about it, a reprehensible human being - incapable of fidelity, convinced he should have what he wants because he wants it, and damn all consequences.  Scorsese thinks Belfort's a bad guy, too.  That's what is missing from some of the criticism of the film - by showing Belfort's excesses and by having him talk us through how he got there (a technique Scorsese employed in Goodfellas as well), Scorsese isn't glorifying Belfort.  He may be superficially charming - the film certainly has funny moments - but under it all, the audience sees that there's something deeply wrong with Belfort.  When a Forbes reporter writes a negative piece on Belfort early in his career as a "pump and dump" man (the article coined the title "Wolf of Wall Street," which was not meant as a compliment), the result is not that people recoil in horror from him.  Quite the contrary - bright young things by the dozen clamor for a job with him.  It tumbles down eventually, and Belfort is convicted of multiple counts of stock fraud and money laundering, but he lands on his feet.  Even today, his "sales technique" seminars (which don't mention the cocaine, Quaaludes, hookers, and - oh, yeah, the people he shamelessly ripped off and to whom he still owes upwards of $10 million in restitution) still have the suckers lining up to be ripped off by this guy.  They even applaud him for doing it.

Why?  Easy.  Because Jordan Belfort was right about one thing.  He was wrong about dozens, scores, and hundreds of things, but he was right about one thing.

Nearly everyone wants to be rich.  Quick.

And to get there, we'll do a lot of things that we think can be excused.  That's at the heart of Scorsese's message in Wolf.  The problem is with Jordan Belfort, true - but it's also with the society that spawned him. No banker yet has been indicted, much less served time, for the financial meltdown of 2008.  I'm willing to bet Belfort can tell you why - but only if you pay him first.  Scorsese is holding up a mirror here, and many of us don't really care for the reflection.  That's why it's crucial that we don't look away.

*By the way, Belfort claims to not be profiting even a penny off of Wolf of Wall Street, but I'm not entirely convinced he's a trustworthy source.  (Oh, I'm sure you won't find an account in his name.)

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