Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Jake Hoffman, Joanna Lumley, Spike Jonze, Ethan Suplee
Running Time: 180 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
You know a film did something right when the discussions, arguments, and controversy surrounding it completely take over, deeming the director's motivations and intent for the project almost irrelevant. But I'll be honest. I didn't think Scorsese had it in him. I didn't think that at age 71 he'd still be able to make a film that's ignited as much controversy and debate as The Wolf of Wall Street already has, or feel as timely and pertinent to the world we live in now. And isn't that what all movies should do? Get us talking. Of course, this could be accomplished and the film still be terrible. It's what many believe of the similarly themed Spring Breakers, with which this would make an interesting, if exhausting, double feature. But the real evidence backing it up is on the screen.

It's not Scorsese's job to "punish" Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort or hold our hands and tell us what he and his cohorts did was wrong. Anyone needing guidance or reassurance in determining their actions are deplorable would likely require help beyond what Scorsese can offer. But that doesn't mean those actions and these characters can't be entertaining as hell when it's presented as a dark, twisted tragicomedy of wretched excess. We're meant to laugh at their idiocy, or not laugh at it, because the ball's in our court. It's a satire, but an unusually savvy one that manages to be both hilarious and horrifying in equal measure.

It's 1987 when young, wet behind the ears Queens native Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes a job as a gopher at a prestigious Wall Street brokerage firm before passing the Series 7 and earning his broker's license. When "Black Monday" hits he goes to work for a dumpy Long Island boiler room that specializes in penny stocks, using his master pitching skills to net a fortune and eventually strike out on his own with new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a ragtag group of local marijuana dealers. Jordan quickly polishes them up, transforming the newly christened Stratton Oakmont into a major industry force, reeling in millions. Then comes cocaine, quaaludes, sex, strippers, and a descent into hedonism that would make it easy to mistake the firm for a 24-7 orgy. He soon leaves his hairdresser wife (Cristin Milioti) for former model Naomi (Margot Robbie) and begins a rocky marriage, but the firm's illegal practices and suspected securities fraud catch the eye of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who makes it his number one priority to bring Jordan down.

Jordan started by screwing over the poor, then moved on to screwing the rich, and then before all was said and done, he eventually screwed himself and got what was coming to him. Well, not really. And that's the big bone of contention and controversy within the film that never really leaves our minds as we're watching, despite it being entirely faithful to the true story detailed in Belfort's memoir.  From the first frame, Scorsese takes us deep into this world and forces us to hang out with these people and attempt to understand their behavior, as impossible as that seems. There's great use of narration and breaking the third wall right away as Belfort addresses the camera and rattles off all the money he's made and the drugs he had to take just to make it through each day. With his confident, charismatic swagger, he'd seem to be the very definition of an unreliable narrator, if not for the fact that everything he's telling is actually true.

When a senior broker takes him under his wing on his first day and lays out the rules for success on Wall Street (which involves some magical combination of greed, coke and masturbation) over lunch, the speech is so well written by Terence Winter and delivered pitch perfectly by king charisma himself, Matthew McConaughey (in yet another scene-stealing turn), it's easy to see how Jordan fell for his intoxicating pitch of wealth and power. We totally get it. And when Jordan turns around and uses those same motivational tactics on his employees, we're sucked in again. Scorsese and DiCaprio dare us to cheer and laugh at it because it's ridiculous, scary, and also fun. Everyone who takes the bait won't be happy about it, but aren't supposed to be. That's the point. The notion that Jordan could be any one of us or someone we know is tough to face because it's true. That's why the film's three hour running length works to its advantage in a way rarely experienced. We're completely immersed in this world of debauchery, moving a mile a minute from one uproariously memorable sequence to the next, each seemingly more shocking than the last. It's excessive because it needs to be and the party never feels like it'll never stop, making the length seem just right and setting the stage for their inevitable fall. I didn't feel the time at all, a feat the editing Oscar was seemingly created to honor.

In what might be the performance of his career (if not certainly his most rewarding Scorsese collaboration yet) DiCaprio is given the rare opportunity to display his physical comedy chops with in a role that's as funny as it is dramatic. We know he can handle the heavy stuff, but who ever thought him capable of being this hilarious? There's never a moment that feels false or put on and it's unusual to see to the actor lose himself in a character to this extreme, burning the candle at both ends as Jordan appears to be having the time of his life while simultaneously wrecking it to pieces. That he seems completely like this man we don't know and possess so little knowledge of is a credit to how much DiCaprio pours into a performance that makes for an interesting companion piece to his work as Jay Gatsby earlier in the year. A more modern, outsized version of that character, Belfort has even even less of a soul and conscience. It's absolutely thrilling to watch and, nomination or not, will likely be appreciated and revisited for a while, squashing complaints from those down on all the frequent Scorsese-DiCaprio projects.   

Right alongside DiCaprio's tour de force is Jonah Hill's sociopathic, side-splitting turn as Jordan's boisterous associate and best friend, Donnie. Complete with buck teeth, bulging eyes and a colorfully hideous wardrobe even by 80's standards, he offers up what's less a performance than a grotesquely brilliant comedic creation so painfully funny and pathetically tragic you may not even believe it's him delivering it. Ironically it's in this, Hill's most prestigious role, that his gifts as a comedian seem best utilized as he makes Donnie almost uncomfortably real in his desire to fit in and make something of himself. Before things goes horribly awry.

Every line delivery, joke, or physical stunt Hill executes, he hits out of the park, causing me nearly uncontrollable laughter with each appearance. He's been exceptional in other things like Moneyball, but this is on another plane entirely. He and DiCaprio share what's sure to go down as the iconic sequence involving the delayed effects of quaaludes that defies description. Let's just say you'll never want to snack on cold cuts ever again. Actually, there are a lot of scenes like that, walking the razor's edge between comedy and drama to almost absurd extents while still somehow remaining within the boundaries of reality.

At the crux of Jordan's sort of downfall is his tumultuous marriage with "The Dutchess" Naomi and the instant Margot Robbie shows up, I wrongly braced myself for a terrible performance based on her appearance, assuming Leo requested they cast a supermodel for the role. For all I know that could have been entirely true, if not for the fact this is Scorsese we're talking about and the Australian Robbie absolutely nails it, going toe-to-toe with DiCaprio in every scene, while consistently maintaining a Brooklyn accent that never wavers. She clearly hit the jackpot in snagging this role but no one can claim it's a squandered opportunity.

Scorsese also provides director Rob Reiner with an entertaining supporting part as Jordan's trigger-tempered father and security head, "Mad Max" while other fellow directors Jon Favreau and Spike Jonze impress respectively as the firm's legal counsel and a hapless Oakmont employee. Recent Oscar winner Jean Dujardin is also really fun as a slick, Swiss banker with whom Jordan enters into business. Always hanging around the periphery is Kyle Chandler's FBI agent who makes Jordan aware of his presence in one of the best written, unexpected exchanges, and since he's played by "Coach Taylor," we're instantly on his side and know Belfort doesn't stand a chance outsmarting him.  It's fitting that what eventually trips him up is so randomly absurd and ridiculous considering how idiotic his behavior was up until that point. It was only a matter of time before it all caught up with him, and when it did, he still refused to just cash in his chips, even at the expense of losing his family and the firm he built.

Just as it seems Belfort will finally be punished, Scorsese subtly turns the camera on us, showing how the problem's much bigger than he is, with a culture that not only condoned, but often encouraged these behaviors and practices. We still do. He knows the only way to do that is by actually showing us, not telling us. Giving us a morality tale that punishes the character would have been far easier in every respect, but it wouldn't be truthful, nor would it be as dramatically interesting. There's a point where even Jordan worries that the law will come down hard on him, before coming to the realization that he's rich and the rules are different for him. We'll buy his books and go to the motivational seminars where audiences are entranced with the knowledge he has to share. Chandler's FBI agent has won only a very small battle, if he's won at all. He'll still have to ride the hot subway to work, integrity intact. But it's Belfort who will be remembered. Scorsese was stuck between a rock and a hard place in how strong a stance should be taken. If he condemns Belfort he's accused of being preachy, but if he doesn't then he's somehow glorifying his actions. Despite popular belief, he made the right choice in showing an uncensored account of what happened and leaving the judging to us.  

While baring most of the hallmarks that categorize a modern day Scorsese movie, it's still hard to recognize it is one since it feels edgy enough to have been made by a young, hungry filmmaker with something to prove. I've heard DiCaprio describe the film as being "punk" and it's easy to see how that adjective fits with the action, comedy, breakneck pacing and especially the Robbie Robertson supervised soundtrack, which takes the director's penchant for seamlessly incorporating classic rock and flips it on its head with lesser known covers of famous songs. Truthfully, it's strange to be on the side defending him since I'm usually never as excited about his work as everyone else, often respecting rather than flat-out loving his output. Not this time. I was on board all the way. At this point in his career no one would think any less of him if he just took it easy and cashed some paychecks so it's impossible not to greatly admire what he did here, delivering a work that carries all the urgency and reckless energy of his most respected titles.

By all accounts, the real Jordan Belfort and his associates certainly had fun doing this stuff so the damage needs to be shown, even if the result is as close to an NC-17 as it gets. The drugs. The hookers. The money. The strippers. The drugs. The government didn't punish Belfort so it's unfair to ask the filmmaker to do it. But the larger question might be whether the very act of making this picture is in some way irresponsible or signs off on the behavior. As if he's supposed to be a moral policeman for audiences and critics who can't make decisions for themselves. The film is whatever the viewer brings to it, as the best one usually are. And obviously anyone coming out of this thinking Belfort is some kind of anti-hero is welcome to that. But that's their decision, not Scorsese's. His job was to make a great film. It's ours to live with it.

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