Monday, December 30, 2013

Love: The Wolf of Wall Street

There's a moment in The Wolf of Wall Street when you get your first glimpse at Jordan Belfort's Long Island estate and -immediately- have visions of the glitzy, jazz age parties Jay Gatsby would have thrown there. There's another moment, too, when Belfort introduces himself via a trite, accented "my name is..." spiel so rehearsed it sounds just like Gatsby's self-constructed history.  Part of the obvious, unavoidable comparison between the two films can be attributed to the presence of a slick-suited Leonardo DiCaprio, of course, though the twin arrival of the latest iteration of The Great Gatsby and the epic vulgarity of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street seems a sort of happenstance that heightens the conversation surrounding each of the projects.

2013, as many critics have been quick to note, has been the year of warped and violated visions of the American dream.  Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby was a sugar sweet bit of capitalist maximalism that now reads as a throwback ground zero.  It pulled Fitzgerald's novel into a landscape where self-making does indeed mean fame, wealth, and all the violent excesses that accompany it, and through its lens we have a way of reading so many of the similarly bent films in its wake. American Hustle, of course, is a film that offers an apt title for the whole sub-genre, but beside it we have The Bling Ring, where teens rob celebrities to become closer to A-list, and Spring Breakers (the now infamous "look at my shit" sequence could be directly paralleled with the swelling, romantic closet excavation in Gatsby..."such beautiful shirts").  Anyone who's kept on top of their filmgoing this year should be able to immediately trace the lines and find the thematic similarities between so many of the most eagerly talked about films, and many have been quick to note: The Wolf of Wall Street is, kinda, a Gatsby for our times.    
But our times are bad, you see, and so The Wolf of Wall Street is a nasty, crude piece of work.  Where Jay Gatsby self-created in the name of obsessive love, he did so with the creeping understanding that made that work so quietly sickening: to be anyone, to get anyone, you had to make yourself invincible (and invisible) through cold hard cash.  Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is based on a real-life individual, and it's safe to say that his contemporary leanings find him ditching romantic love in favor of fanatical excess.  Jordan loves money, he loves power, he loves the things he can get with both, the passes that are afforded to him by society.  In the film's opening scenes, we see a young, wide-eyed Jordan escorted to lunch by experienced broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey).  In a restaurant more elegant than any he'd likely visited to that point, Jordan watches as a man he understands to be successful gets away with all the things he'd ever been told were socially unacceptable. Hanna drinks to excess during the workday, snorts cocaine at the table, makes broad statements about cheating the masses, and bluntly tells Jordan to break up his workday with drugs and masturbation.  His few minutes on screen serve as the basis for Jordan's entire work ethic, and as he moves onward and upward, he carries the idea of these bawdy indulgences with him.  The company he creates with deranged partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) runs according to this notion of privilege, and the office floor resembles the chaos of one of Gatsby's West Egg parties.  The idea is, of course, that if you have money, if you're making money, if you're successful, you're afforded the luxury of creating whatever you want and getting away with it.  For Jordan Belfort, that begins with weekly in-office debauchery: carted in hoards of strippers, underwear-clad marching bands, boardroom orgies, and doesn't end until the Feds close in.  Scorsese may have pulled from Citizen Kane's self-congratulatory hedonism, but Belfort makes Kane look like an upstanding gentleman, and the showy, frenetic density of the crowd is pure Luhrmann.
If you're into the manic energy of The Wolf of Wall Street, its three hours fly by at an astonishing pace, disappearing beneath an endless barrage of excess and upped stakes.  This is the most awake I've been in the cinema through all of the current Oscar season thus far, I have to admit.  I was hooked, flat out, and found myself as thoroughly entertained as I was, perhaps, repulsed.  Though the film is bound (like Scarface, perhaps) to be esteemed and wrongly idolized by the sort of people it depicts, over the three hours Scorsese draws a scathing, blackly comedic portrait of American greed. Belfort, for the benefit of our amusement, is eviscerated in much the way that Jake LaMotta is in Raging Bull.  Indeed, Scorsese seems to draw from his own filmography, taking pages from LaMotta's rise and fall, from the montages of Goodfellas, the marriage in Casino, etc, to set up exactly the right notes in a way that feels so, so wrong.  Perhaps he recognizes that many of his films boast the criminal antiheroes and charismatic gangsters fetishized by individuals like Belfort and Azoff, that to tell their story properly he needs to construct a satirical pastiche of his own work.

Whether self-aware or not (I like to think Marty knows when he's repeating a pattern, and does so quite deliberately), the decisions made in presenting Wolf's many indecencies so zippily is one that works to push the film towards something so over the top that it may actually be revolutionary. No matter how many frat boy comedies you think you've seen, you've likely never seen as many atrocities played for laughs packed into one movie.  Few things are shied away from, and the film does its best to offend anyone and everyone, to shock you with the absolute ignorance of its millionaires, to launch an atom bomb at the notion of morality.  This is its curious beauty, its strange gift.  In his 70's, Scorsese has given us the all-out, no-limits, distempered film that many have stopped short of in the past.  The Wolf of Wall Street goes over the edge in service to the artwork, certainly, but also to make its point.
Like so many reprehensible works before it, The Wolf of Wall Street - for all its evils - is ultimately a backhanded morality play.  Jordan Belfort, a real life individual, is painted as a cartoonish monstrosity, a character who moves at so rapid a clip that keeping up with him reads as futile and exhausting before the film manages to reach its second act.  He's an arrogant, repugnant figure, and one rendered by Scorsese as a sort of merry stooge incapable of understanding that he is, ultimately, still human.  Where DiCaprio played Gatsby as an uncertain man desperately trying to appear confident, here he becomes a vengeful, quick-tempered demigod fueled by ego to the point of destruction. It's as remarkable a comedic performance as it is a dramatic one. Scorsese pushes DiCaprio through a range of responses and situations most actors will never have the burden of having to pull off convincingly.  All of the performances are good, but it's DiCaprio's show, and even as you hate this character with every fiber of your can't look away.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I definitely think Marty is fully aware of everything he's doing, including his use of repetition in the film. Is it something that everyone will appreciate? Nah. But something I certainly loved, no doubt.


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