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The stock market; where very little actual money is seen, but much is somehow made, is often portrayed in films as the Wild West in suits and ties; where the sheriffs meant to regulate are forever three steps behind.  Fortunes are won and lost and scams are welcomed as long as one doesnít get caught.  Besides causing international calamity, the vagaries of Wall Street have frequently wrought disaster on a much smaller scale when stock playing beginners foolishly place their trust in smooth-talking brokers who pad their own pockets while conning naÔve investors out of their homes and life savings.  That smaller swindle is the basis of The Wolf of Wall Street, an adaptation of the true story of a stock market fraud and convicted money launderer.

In the mid-1980s, a glut of up-and-coming Young Turks are all champing to make their marks in the stock market.  Enter Jordan Belfort, raring to go and savvy enough to flourish under mentors whose lessons in the art of the deal include the common, casual debauchery of liquid lunches and white powder power-ups.  When the financial plague called Black Monday hits the market, Jordan finds himself out of a job.  His brief dabble in the power of guiding fortunes renders him incapable of giving up the dream of Wall Street dominance.  Without a proper brokerage job in sight, Jordan answers an ad in the local paper that exposes him to the shady world of penny stocks; where traders push sales of miniscule or downright fraudulent buy-in opportunities to unwitting clients.  It is a huge come-down from the visions of luxury that accompanied his brokerís license.  Using his gift for sales and playing on the dreams of eager clients, Jordan immediately lands investors willing to purchase thousands of dollars in a worthless stocks from this cold-calling dreamweaver.  Heís off and running, turning the penny stock into a lucrative business of his own.  He reaches out to some fellow grifter friends, including his creepy neighbour, Donnie, who is so desperate for a get-rich-quick scheme that he quits his safe job on the spot after finding out how much Jordan makes.  The team grows and soon Jordan is back on Wall Street with a new miracle company that the older established firms canít figure out.  Their very expensive boiler room becomes a haven of money for nothing and utter depravity with strippers and dwarf tossing in lieu of casual Fridays.  More and even more are the buzzwords and soon even Jordanís devoted wife isnít enough as he trades her in for the epitome of 90ís glamour, a Miller beer model, who is only too happy to hitch herself to Jordanís rising star.  However, all the mansions, yachts and helicopters are not without some kind of catch and that is where the FBI comes in, suspecting misdoings on the penny stock front.  Jordanís targeting by a determined agent leads him to discover the joy of the Swiss bank account.  He then employs every possible body to smuggle millions out of the country to avoid detection of his fortune.  Too drunk on his own nouveau riche and too high in general as he and Donnie are determined to sample every exotic drug ever made Ė because they can Ė itís only a matter of time before Jordanís wild ride reaches some kind of crash.

One of The Wolf of Wall StreetĎs challenges is in telling this story of incredibly unsympathetic characters and then positioning them as antiheroes.  A lot of the film rests on Leonardo DiCaprioís likability and the actor does a lot of heavy lifting, trying to fill in a person so entirely shallow.  There is nothing redeeming about Jordan Belfort; he and his gluttonous pals are a horror show of excess that just goes on and on until they are threatened, and even then donít know how to tamp down their base urges.  This is the only side of them the audience sees.  What makes me believe they are posed an antiheroes is a scene set around the two-hour mark when Jordan is offered the opportunity to save himself from serious jail time if he steps down from the company he created.  He gives what I guess was meant to be a heartfelt speech about how all the freaks in his office are his family and the company is his home, bla, bla.  Humanity simply does not become this character, particularly at this late stage in the film.  He points out his employment of a single mother as an example of his largesse and compassion towards his merry band of barbarians, but after the onslaught of remorseless vice weíve witnessed, itís almost comical.  Jonah Hillís incestuous, bisexual (A topic conspicuously unexplored in this gang of oh-so-straight, stripper-schtupping alpha males in the age of AIDS) Donnie, serves as nothing more than a weird, loose-cannon wingman, and, as with DiCaprioís Jordan, is completely one-dimensional.  The only character I felt anything for was JordanĎs pill-pushing, thug buddy, who tried to stay out of the crewís worst indulgences, but ends up taking a jail rap.  Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent is great in his scene on Jordanís boat, where the suspect fails to dazzle the agent with his wealth and clumsily bribes him.  Still, because the lawman is a working stiff, itís inferred that he secretly wishes he could be like the depraved scofflaw.  Conversely, making the main lot so horrible and seeing their fates also serves as a parallel to the current culture of the wealthiest - particularly those behind financial institutions - getting away with ruining lives thousands at a time and receiving only the lightest of sentences - if there is any punishment at all.

I have never appreciated Scorseseís depiction of women.  There is always a vibrant display of the Madonna/Whore complex in his films.  No matter which side of the line they fall on, all women are haranguing harpies and succubi who exist merely to sap the sanity out of their beguiled, helpless men, and so it goes here.  Jordanís first wife is a suffering, plaster saint who only shows moxie when she catches her man in the act (And doesnít lay a hand on the twig-like, blonde model; thatís no Italian New York woman I ever met.), and the alleged upgrade, a shallow golddigger has no job after marrying Jordan and moving into their mansion, yet employs a nanny for their only child.  Of course when things go Pete Tong, sheís outta there.  No woman in a Scorsese film was ever a surprise or admirable.  Here itís debasement in droves as we are made to suffer through an array of close-up shots of stripper backsides and sex acts all around the brokerage office.  We even endure one female employee having her head patchily shaved for ten thousand dollars as her male coworkers cavort on the floor with prostitutes.  Everyone and everything is for sale - especially females.

Vulgar. Vulgar. Vulgar.  How long does it take to establish that a character in a movie is not very nice?  Director Martin Scorsese felt we needed nearly three hours of repeated debauchery and nasty deeds to hammer the point home, again and again and again.

The concept of the film is not particularly hard to grasp: Wannabe Yuppie gets rich, loses mind, is nasty - a lot - might have to deal with consequencesÖ maybe.  What was that, five seconds to read?  What was the necessity was of a lengthy slapstick sequence of DiCaprio literally flopping down the stairs of a country club into his Lamborghini as a new narcotic knocks him silly?  Yes, heís stoned, we got that twenty seconds in.  Gratuitous in the same way is a subsequent scene with Hill and DiCaprio wrestling while off their heads on drugs.  Even while understanding that Jordanís life is one of unending excess, the constant barrage of expensive stupidity becomes painfully tedious.  Unfortunately for the film, its best moment occurs in its first fifteen minutes when Jordan has a liquid (and powder) lunch with one of his new Wall Street mentors, a hedonistic, money grubber for whom wheedling a potential investorís dosh out of his pocket is a religious experience.  Matthew McConaughey plays it so ravishingly over-the-top and unfettered - with rapid-fire burbles of new age mumbo-jumbo, including chest-thumping and chanting - that one wonders if Scorsese just wound him up and let him go.  The movie never reaches the mesmerising summit of that short sequence again and it really couldíve used the energy. 

The Wolf of Wall Street is directed with a gusto and energy that would put many directors a third of Martin Scorseseís age to shame.  Ultimately, weíre watching Scorsese trying very hard to bring Goodfellas-style bite and tension to a situation where the worst that can happen to a character is the possibility of serving time in a cushy jail (Though by the filmís end, I did so wish for a meat locker or a Joe Pesci cameo).  Itís frustrating to watch him running around so vigorously in the same place for nearly three hours on such a hollow effort.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Dec 23rd, 2013

 

 

 

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