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The Wolf of Wall Street

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    By Entertainer


    Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" is abashed and shameful, exciting and exhausting, disgusting and illuminating; it's one of the most entertaining films ever made about loathsome men. Its star Leonard DiCaprio has compared it to the story of the Roman emperor Caligula, and he's not far off the mark. 

    Adapted by Terence Winter from the memoir by Jordan Belfort, the charismatic but corrupt stockbroker who oozed his way into a small fortune in the 1980s and '90s, this is an excessive film about excess, and a movie about appetites whose own appetite for compulsive pleasures—sex, drugs, booze, deception, alpha male domination, material goods and most of all, money—seems bottomless. It runs three hours and was reportedly cut down from four by Scorsese's regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It's a testament to Scorsese and Winter and their collaborators that one could imagine watching these people for five hours, or ten, while still finding them fascinating, and our own fascination with them disturbing. This is a reptilian brain movie. Every frame has scales. 

    The middle-class, Queens-raised Belfort tried and failed to establish himself on Wall Street in a more traditional way—we see his tutelage in the late '80s at a blue chip firm, under the wing of a grinning sleazeball played by Matthew McConaughey—but got laid off in the market crash of 1987. He eventually reinvented himself on Long Island by taking over a boiler room penny-stock operation and giving it a stereotypically old money name, Stratton Oakmont, that would instantly earn the trust of middle-class and working-class investors who aspired to become respectable by doing business with respectable people. Per Wikipedia, at its peak, "the firm employed over 1000 stock brokers and was involved in stock issues totaling more than $1 billion, including an equity raising for footwear company Steve Madden Ltd." Belfort and his company specialized in "pump and dump" operations: artificially blowing up the value of a nearly worthless stock, then selling it at a big profit, after which point the value drops and the investors lose their money. Belfort was indicted in 1998 for money laundering and securities fraud, spent nearly two years in federal prison and was ordered to pay back $110 million to investors he'd deceived. 

    The movie tells this story in time-honored rise-and-fall fashion. It shows how Belfort rose from humble origins through sheer nerve and refashioned himself as a leader of men and a person of influence, eventually drawing notoriety (the title comes from an unflattering Forbes magazine profile that caught the attention of federal prosecutors). This Robin Hood-in-reverse builds himself a team of merry men drawn from various sundry corners of his life. They all have both given names and Damon Runyon-esque nicknames: Robbie Feinberg, aka "Pinhead" (Brian Sacca), Alden Kupferberg, aka "Sea Otter" (Henry Zebrowski), the dreadfully-toupeed "Rugrat" Nicky Koskoff (P.J. Byrne), "The Depraved Chinaman" Chester Ming (Kenneth Choi). 

    Belfort's right hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is perhaps even more conscienceless than Belfort: a hefty wiseass with gleaming fake choppers who quits his job at a diner after one conversation with the hero, joins his scheme, helps him launder his ill-gotten money, and introduces him to crack cocaine, as if Belfort didn't already have enough intoxicants in his system, on top of the adrenaline he generates by making deals and bedding every halfway attractive woman who crosses his path. As McConaughey's character tells Belfort early on, this subset of investing is so scummy that you pretty much have to do drugs to participate in it. As the variety of substances increases throughout the story, the addicts' justifications for doing them become more grandiose; at one point a broker declares that they're doing all that coke and all those Quaaludes and guzzling all that booze "in order to stimulate our freethinking ideas." 

    Belfort is married when the tale begins, to a good and respectable woman who doesn't approve of either his financial shenanigans or his chronic infidelity, but he soon throws her over for a blond and curvy trophy named Naomi LaPaglia (Australian actress Margot Robbie, managing a Queens accent more convincingly than DiCaprio), then marries her and begins supporting her in the style to which they've both become accustomed. After a few years, Belfort is living in a mansion that another DiCaprio character, Gatsby, might find a bit gaudy, and buying a yacht, and helicoptering to and from meetings and parties, sometimes piloting under the influence and almost crashing. Imagine the last thirty minutes of "GoodFellas" stretched out to three hours, and that's the pace of this movie, and the feel of it. It's one damned thing after another: stock fraud and money laundering, trips to and from Switzerland to deposit cash in banks, rock-and-pop driven montages with ostentatious film speed shifts (a super-slow motion Quaalude binge is a sick high point), and a number of daringly protracted and seemingly half-improvised dialogue scenes that feel like abbreviated one-act plays. The best of these is probably McConaughey's only long scene as Belfort's mentor Mark Hanna, who at one point beats out a weird melody on his chest while rumble-singing a la Bobby McFerrin; this eventually becomes the anthem of Belfort's firm, and it's weirdly right, as it has suggests a tribal war song befitting barbarians whose entire life is a sustained rampage. 

    As is often the case in Scorsese's movies, "Wolf" gives alpha male posturing the attraction-repulsion treatment, serving up the drugging and whoring and getting-over as both spectacle and cautionary tale. The film lacks the mild distancing that Scorsese brought to "GoodFellas" and "Casino"—the former contrasting Henry Hill's matter-of-fact narration with occasionally shocked reactions to bloodshed, the latter adopting a Stanley Kubrick-like tone of chilly distance, as if everyone involved were narrating from a cloud in Heaven or a pit in Hell; "Wolf," though, is right in the middle of things at all times, to frequently suffocating effect, and this is clearly intentional. Scorsese and his editor Schoonmaker challenge the audience to come to their own conclusions about the behavior they're seeing onscreen, depriving the viewer of the usual moral anchors. This is not the same thing as saying that the film is amoral, though. It's not. It's disgusted by this story and these people and finds them grotesque, often filming them from distorted angles or in static wide shots that make them seem like well-dressed animals in lushly decorated terrariums. The film's comic high point is a Belfort-Azoff Quaalude binge that spirals into comic madness, with Azoff blubbering and freaking out and impulsively stuffing his face and collapsing, and Belfort suffering paralysis during a panicked phone call about his money and then crawling towards his car like a nearly-roadkilled animal, one agonizing inch at a time. These frequent moments of humiliation—and there are a lot of them, including an instantly gif-worthy moment of Belfort paying a prostitute to stick a lit candle in his bum—coexist with moments that get off on the men's howling and profit-making and chest-thumping. We're supposed to figure out how we feel about the mix of modes, and accept that if there were no appeal to this sort of behavior, nobody would indulge in it. This doesn't seem wishy-washy. It feels true.  

    Scorsese and Winter never lose track of the bigger picture, though. Their focus it tight but their dramatic vision is wide. Stratton Oakmont employed over 1000 stock brokers and was involved in stock issues totaling more than $1 billion, including an equity raising for footwear company "Wolf" starts with a Fellini-like party on the floor of Belfort's fantastically successful boiler-room operation, freeze-framing on an image of Belfort tossing a dwarf at a huge velcro target, literally and figuratively abusing the Little Guy. They get away with it because we don't see ourselves as the little guy, but the little guy who might some day rise in this land of opportunity and become the big guy who's doing the tossing. "“Socialism never took root in America," John Steinbeck wrote, "because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” 

    In theory, the movie's subject is Wall Street, or more accurately the Wall Street mentality, which is just a more clean-scrubbed, three-piece-suited version of the gangster mentality showcased in Scorsese's "Mean Streets," "GoodFellas" and "Casino" (one could make a case that guys like Belfort are the ones who pushed the Vegas mob out of Vegas). But when people ask me what the film is about, I tell them that like a good many films by Scorsese—who overcame a prodigious cocaine problem in the early '80s—at its root, it's about addiction: a disease or condition that seizes hold of one's emotions and imagination, and makes it nearly impossible to picture any life but the one you're already in. 

    A good many people get a contact high from following the exploits of entrepreneurs, financiers, bankers, CEO and the like, and when such men (they're nearly always men) get busted for skirting or breaking laws, they root for them as if they were disreputable folk heroes, gangsters with fountain pens instead of guns—guys who for all their petty meanness and selfishness and sometimes cruelty, are above the petty rules that constrict and oppress the rest of us. They're addicts, and we are their enablers. We enable them by not paying close enough attention to their misdeeds, much less demanding reform of the laws they flout or bend or ignore, laws that might have teeth if we hadn't allowed guys like Belfort (and his far more powerful role models) to legally bribe the entire United States legislative branch via the nonsensical "system" of campaign financing. And after a certain number of decades, or centuries, we should probably ask if the continuous enabling of addicts like Belfort doesn't mean that, in some sense, their enablers are addicted, too—that they and we are all part of the same psychic continuum, a perpetual-motion wheel that just keeps turning and turning. In the end I don't think "Wolf" is so much about one particular addict, Jordan Belfort, as it is about America's addiction to capitalist excess and the "He who dies with the most toys wins" mindset, which has proved as durable as the allure of the snarling back-alley gangster taking what he likes whenever he feels like taking it. 

    Scorsese and Winter aren't the least bit shy about drawing connections between Belfort and his white-collar-criminal gang and the more brusque and violent thugs in Scorsese's mob pictures. The mob films are addiction stories, too. Like Belfort, Henry Hill in "GoodFellas" and the various narrators of "Casino" have the outsider-insider perspective of someone who's in recovery, or who tells everyone they're in recovery, and who deep down would either prefer not to be in recovery or never really took recovery seriously in the first place. "The Wolf of Wall Street" showcases Belfort Henry Hill-style, as if he were an addict touring the wreckage of his own life in order to apologize and seek forgiveness; but like a lot of addicts, as Belfort recounts his misadventures—the disasters he narrowly escaped, the lies he told, the lives he ruined—you can feel the buzz in his voice and the adrenaline cooking in his veins as he remembers what he once had. You can tell that he misses his old life of deals and money laundering and acquisitions and decadent parties, just as Henry Hill missed busting heads, jacking trucks, cheating on his wife, and doing enough cocaine to make Scarface's head explode. 

    There will be a few points during "Wolf", maybe more than a few, when you think, "These people are revolting, why am I tolerating this, much less getting a vicarious thrill from it?" At those moments, think about what the "it" refers to. It's not just these characters, and this setting, and this particular story. It's the world we live in. In theory, men like Jordan work for us. They represent us, even as they're robbing us blind. They're America, and on some level we must be OK with them representing America, otherwise we would have seen reforms in the late '80s or '90s or '00s that made it harder for men like  Belfort to amass a fortune, or that at least quickly detected and decisively punished their sins. Belfort was never really punished, certainly not in comparison to the magnitude of the pain he inflicted. According to federal prosecutors, he failed to abide by the terms of his 2003 restitution agreement. He's a motivational speaker now, and if you read interviews with him, or his memoir, it's obvious that he's not really sorry about anything but getting caught. We laugh at the movie, but guys like Belfort will never stop laughing at us. 

    By: Matt Zoller Seitz
    Posted: December 25, 2013, 6:37 pm


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