Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

In a perverse way, Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play the role of Jordan Belfort, the real-life "wolf of Wall Street" who used a number of illegal methods to take his financial firm, Stratton Oakmont, to the top in the 1980s and 1990s. DiCaprio's face still maintains its youthful look; for a man who's nearing 40, he still looks like he's just beginning to age. That youthfulness plays a big role here, because it gives him a "would I lie to you?" look of snake-oil sleaze, and as a result you - like the thousands of employees and everyday people he conned - can't help but believe him. Or, more accurately, you almost can't help buying the bullshit that he's selling. As The Wolf of Wall Street shows, Belfort has plenty of bullshit to spare.

The film follows Belfort from his arrival on Wall Street to his "downfall," his imprisonment for a few short years that was then followed by a successful career as a motivational speaker. In between, we see how Belfort and his associates - namely Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), his right-hand man - as they conduct their business. A business, of course, that mostly amounts to scamming people into buying stocks that are essentially worthless, exploiting as many legal loopholes as they can find, hiring prostitutes and then going home to their wives, and taking more drugs - particularly cocaine and quaaludes - than the human body should be able to handle. Even when the FBI - led by Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) - comes knocking at his door, Belfort refuses to give in, believing that there's no possible way that he and the company could be taken down.

It's easy to see why director Martin Scorsese would be drawn to a character like Belfort. The man has made a terrific filmography about morally-inhibited men doing what they have to to get by. But Belfort is something else altogether, a monster who has no interest in "getting by;" he wants to have it all. Scorsese is fully willing to dive into this heart of darkness, and the film begins with Belfort having already lost his soul, then flashing back not to the moment where he sells it to the devil so much as ties it to a cinder block at forces it out the 70th floor window. For a film that stretches nearly three hours, Scorsese does a remarkable job at making the sickening bacchanalia bearable, and this is thanks to a few choices moments when the film, unfolding mostly from Belfort's point-of-view, removes itself from him and takes the perspective of the audience. The Wolf of Wall Street is very much a satire, but it's these moments when the film steps back and shows us what a pitiful, disgusting bastard Belfort is that it makes its point: we in the audience should be appalled not only that this was the culture of Wall Street, but that it still is to this day.

Of course, there are quite a number of actors whose reputations make the satire work that much better. Besides the aforementioned DiCaprio, who truly gives the best performance of his career here, Hill is a marvel as Donnie. There's an off-the-cuff feel to his portrayal, and much of his performance does feel like it was born from his improv more than anything else, but the way he plays Donnie as an asshole looking for a career to justify his behavior makes him the ideal candidate for Belfort's sidekick. Similarly, Matthew McConaughey absolutely owns his one scene as Belfort's mentor, playing a character who is essentially Dallas from Magic Mike if he had chosen business school over stripping. Margot Robbie is terrific as Belfort's second wife Naomi, a woman who's in love with the lifestyle he provides but can barely stand the monster that he is. Of all the characters in the film, only Chandler's Agent Denham has any redeeming qualities, and he's a delight in his pursuit to take Belfort down.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that has stirred up quite a controversy since its release, namely around whether the film glorifies or condemns the activities onscreen. But Scorsese's film, it seems, falls on the latter side without actually doing so. The truth is this: Belfort got off easy. He suffered very little - if any, really - consequences for his actions, and never once gave any thought to the victims of his illicit doings. In fact, more than anything, the real Belfort actually gained from his punishment. Scorsese's film wants you to be mad as hell about that. I know I was. A-

No comments: