Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Recent Watches: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

This Oscar season has invited maybe a little more controversy then usual. From Woody Allen, to “12 Years a Slave’s” disturbing content, to the Academy actually liking “American Hustle,” this year has seen no shortage of outrage. However, I think the biggest generator of film-related controversy this year belongs to “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Does the film glorify its immoral, criminal protagonists? Does its sex and drug content go too far over the top? Does it unfairly represent the true story? How big of an asshole was Jordan Belfort exactly? Surprisingly, the film itself, an engaging, amusing affair, hasn’t been entirely overlooked amid the hullabaloo.

Based off his tell-all book, the film chronicles the life of Jordan Belfort, a wall street broker who made millions by selling shitty stocks for exaggerated costs, ripping off thousands and making himself absurdly rich. What money Jordan doesn’t spend on his ever-growing addiction to sex and drugs buys himself a succession of mansions, a yacht, and a supermodel wife. Nothing interrupts the constant bacchanal that is Jordan and his co-workers’ life. Not even when the government begins to investigate Stratton Oakmont’s deeply illegal business practice. The second half of the film discusses how the company hides their millions in Swedish banks, before rising drug-related insanity, a dissolving marriage, and increased government scrutiny leads to a downfall of sorts.

It’s no wonder the film has received so much attention for its content. “The Wolf of Wall Street” draws detailed attention to the impossible intake of sex and drugs Jordan and his pals regularly partaked in. The film begins with a dwarf being tossed onto a Velcro dart board and continues on to Jordan getting road-head while in his speeding Ferrari and snorting cocaine out of a call-girl’s asshole. Much attention is paid to the amount of coke and Quaaludes Belfort consumes on a daily basis. Throughout the film we see more breasts then you could ever count, full frontal nudity, and graphic fuckery of many sorts, including kinky S&M and a gay orgy. I have no idea how this movie received an R-rating. I know the moral guardians at the MPAA count the number of thrust men perform during a sex scene and I suspect this film far exceeds the typical R limit. I guess starring Leo DiCaprio and being directed by Martin Scorsese leads to some leeway.

Does the movie glorify the excesses of its protagonists’ life? Probably. If for no other reason then Scorsese never focuses on Belfort’s victims. Never once do we see the lives ruined by Stratton Oakmont’s “pump and dump” scam. The film is focused purely Belfort and his associates, telling the story from their point of view. This might be unfair, even slightly irresponsible, but I suspect it accurately reflects the source material. Maybe it’s for the best since, for the majority of the runtime, the coke, pills, hookers, and money money money looks like a whole lot of fun. The film’s rambunctious tone probably would derailed any attempt to make a statement about greed.

The movie’s themes are more self-evident. Here in America, greed works. Belfort and company are made ridiculously rich, live lives of incredible excess, rip off lots of people, and never truly suffer for it. Oh, he looses a portion of his fortune, his wife, his kids, all his friends, and spends three relatively comfortable years in jail. At the end, he’s still well-to-do and doesn’t seem to have learned much. The film is less a “rise and fall story” then a rise, rise, rise, and eventual minor fall story. This structure is helped along by the film’s epic three hour length which spends far more time on the circumstances of Belfort’s charmed life then his inevitable loss. The film accurately reflects a world were the 1% never suffer, told from the point of view of those who are victors even when they loose.

The film’s cynical tone is helped along by the fact that it’s really funny. Belfort casually discusses the business of buying prostitutes, his daily regiment of illegal substances, and how to rip people off. It’s clear that none of his crimes, both legal and moral, weigh on his conscious at all. Before a long flight, Belfort doses up just right, to insure he’s passed out for the entire trip. DiCaprio’s deadpan description of each phase of intoxication is especially amusing. When faced with a boat-capsizing tidal wave, Belfort runs for more drugs, exclaiming that he won’t die sober. Rob Reiner plays Belfort’s dad, often wryly commenting on his son’s hellraising behavior. A discussion between the two concerning women’s pubic hair is another highlight. The lead character’s debauchery arguably peaks when he decides to seduce his wife’s aunt, a moment that builds and defuses fantastically.

However, one humorous scene in the movie stands above the rest. In order to celebrate successfully smuggling cash into Sweden, Jordan and his best man Donnie pop a set of ultra-rare, ultra-powerful ‘luudes. They don’t appear to work at first, prompting the men to ingest more. And more. When the drugs finally kick in, Belfort looses complete control of his bodily functions. If the Academy gave out Oscars for comedic performances, DiCaprio would surely win. His physicality in that moment is incredible, twisting his limbs into knots, rolling around on the ground, nudging a car door open with his foot. The scene continues to build from there, the completely slurred Jordan forced to rescue an equally intoxicated Donnie. Contrasting a Popeye cartoon with Belfort’s dependence on cocaine, the moment climaxes hysterically. Even then, the movie isn’t done, the fate of Belfort’s car providing a nice punch line.

With the movie being so amusing and DiCaprio’s performance being so likable gung-ho, you almost wonder if Scorsese wants you to like these utterly despicable characters. After two and a half hours of Belfort and his cohorts being portrayed as lovably debauched pranksters, Scorsese pulls the rug out from under us. Facing financial ruin, government prosecution, and a divorce from his wife, Belfort hits rock bottom. He snorts a hidden cache of coke, beats Naomi, kidnaps his daughter, and nearly gets both killed in a car wreck. See, the director says, he’s not so much fun now, is he? It’s a good thing Scorsese is a fucking master at these sort of tonal shifts because otherwise that scene might derail “Wolf of Wall Street’s” final act.

And what about that cast? DiCaprio’s running monologue intentionally recalls “Goodfellas” but Leo makes it his own. He shows no shame, inhabiting the role of a heartless, completely debauched scumbag. He earned his nomination and, in a less busy year, would probably win. Jonah Hill certainly has the comedic chops to pull off scenes involving cousin fucking, crack smoking, and whipping his dick out at a party. He still has yet to convince me as a dramatic actor. Margot Robbie, last seen on forgettable airplane soap “Pan Am,” makes a ridiculous Long Island accent believable and proves an able foil to DiCaprio, especially when thrown glasses of water are involved. (She’s also lovely and very, very naked.) Though Matthew McConaughey’s role is ultimately small, his scene as Jordan’s cock-swinging, hedonistic mentor is certainly memorable.

Even at three hours long, “Wolf of Wall Street” is certainly a good time, an entertaining and absorbing study of a fully unrepentant character. Scorsese packs the soundtrack full of inspired choices like Devo, Klaus Nomi, the Foo Fighters, and Jimmy Castor. His direction is smooth and creative. Maybe Martin Scorsese doesn’t make masterpieces like “Raging Bull” or “Taxi Driver” anymore but this film proves he certainly hasn’t lost any of his youthful energy. [7/10]

With only a few hours to go before the Oscars, I have finally seen all of the Best Picture nominees. I would rank them thus:

Her: 9/10
Nebraska: 9/10
Gravity: 9/10
12 Years a Slave: 8/10
Dallas Buyers Club: 8/10
The Wolf of Wall Street: 7/10
Philomena: 7/10
Captain Philips: 6/10
American Hustle: 5/10

I guess that makes for a pretty good year. I also saw about half of "August: Osage County" last night before falling asleep. It seemed slightly shrill but still interesting. I was hoping to get to some of the documentary and foreign language nominees but, as usual, ran out of time. Return later tonight for my annual Live-Blog of the 86th Academy Awards. See you then!

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