THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Aren't capitalism's excesses hilarious? Good thing that in the second decade of the 21st century we're beyond all that, so now we can finally laugh! Because, yes, they totally are.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter (based on the book by Adolf Hitler)
With Leonardo DiCaprio (Jordan Belfort), Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff), Margot Robbie (Naomi Rapaglia), Kyle Chandler (Agent Patrick Denham), Rob Reiner (Max Belfort), Jean Dujardin (Jean Jacques Suarel), and Matthew McConaughey (Mark Hanna)
Spoiler alert: mild
It's the late 1980s, and Jordan Belfort is a young(ish) stockbroker who, out on his ass after Black Monday, takes a job pushing penny stocks; soon he comes upon the idea of shilling these worthless investments to rich people as well as the poor, and, striking out on his own, creates his own brokerage, which amounts to little more than a facade named (of course) Stratton Oakmont. Forming the vanguard of his new firm are a cadre of low-lives, mostly current and former drug dealers from his old neighborhood, but also numbering a guy who saw Belfort's Jaguar in a restaurant parking lot and begged him for a job. This is a dysfunctional little fellow named Donnie Azoff who is married to his first cousin and smokes crack. Their firm of crap-peddling cold-callers grows until it can fill an Apartment-sized office from floor to rafter. They've got the brains, they've got the brawn, they're all assholes and they all make lots of money.
"The only problem you'll have is that you didn't buy enough, cocksucker." Actually, I'm pretty sure that's a verbatim line.
Now that you know all that, know that this is setting, not substance; the things that Belfort, Azoff, and the rest of Stratton Oakmont do to make (as opposed to earn) their money are secondary, if not completely tertiary, to everything else in the movie. All we need to know is that what they're doing is grotesquely unethical, and often unlawful. The movie is intermittently narrated by Belfort, and at least twice Leonardo DiCaprio, talking directly at the camera and explaining the workings of the Stratton Oakmont empire, stops in mid-sentence, laughs, and informs us that we, the audience, don't care, before getting back to some seriously broad shock comedy. Actually, that may be better satire than I initially cared to give it credit for.
And, yes, The Wolf of Wall Street's recourse to slapstick is indeed simultaneously good satire. This is a movie bold enough to show us monsters, and ask us to laugh and laugh and laugh, and if I'm reminded of anything, it's not so much Pain & Gain, which is still (and I can now say, forever) the best class warrior film of the class war-heavy cinema of 2013, because that one was a genuine exploration of class structure in America. This is not.
What I'm most reminded of is The Great Dictator, except that movie was made in 1940 and Chaplin thought the other guy with a funny mustache was more of a clown than we'd now be likely accept in a movie made about everybody's favorite reich chancellor.
The Wolf of Wall Street was made in 2013, long after we've realized that people like Jordan Belfort should be dragged from their homes in the middle of the night. Scorsese takes this as a given, and his film's principal focus for the first two hours is what very fine clowns these wannabe masters of the universe can make. It still serves as a call to action, but less perfectly than when Chaplin addressed his even more complacent audience directly.
Did I say the first two hours? Yes, I did. As has been well-publicized, The Wolf of Wall Street really is too long. It is also too short. A technical epic, it spans years, continents, and a hundred eighty minutes cold, yet at that extremity, it still doesn't have the time to fully describe its titular American predator in more than very sketchy archetype. However, if it's surely not our lengthiest monolithic piece of pornography—an integral aspect of the production we can discuss later—The Wolf has got to be, by a robust margin, the longest drug comedy ever made.1
And for so long as it operates in this vein, it's a great film. Saying that Scorsese's effort is an entertainment more than an elucidation would be the mildest of criticisms; it would also be somewhat untrue. However, everybody involved does appear to forget what kind of movie they were making, and at a point well after most movies have already ended, we are asked to finally begin to take Jordan Belfort seriously, an impossible request given that for the previous two hours we have been asked to find in him the same kind of amusement that we would draw from a ribald cartoon.
Which is to say, a great deal of amusement, because for its ultra-extended first act (of what really amounts to two, total), The Wolf of Wall Street, ribald and live action as it is, is an enormously well-made cartoon. There is not only more Cheech and Chong in The Wolf of Wall Street than there was in After Hours, the Scorsese movie they actually showed up in; there's more than there is in Up In Smoke. In fact, that's not being quite fair to Leo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill—they are, by some margin, funnier than Cheech and Chong.
Belfort and Azoff are certainly severer substance abusers—there has probably not been a movie this much about being on drugs since Requiem For a Dream. Even with pure, uncut movie magic, it remains a little implausible that these bozos could ever run a company, even a company that produces nothing unless you count malignant fraud as a product (though economists do, up to 7.5% of GDP as of 2010, rising to 8.4% in 2011, and no doubt rising still).
But, like the man says, we don't care about that; as for statistics that might be actually interesting, there is approximately sixty times as much talk of drugs in The Wolf of Wall Street as there is talk of stocks; a hundred times if you count alcohol as a drug; and, if someone wanted, as they well might, you could edit this movie down solely to scenes involving its leads discussing, ingesting, or enjoying quaaludes, and still have a full-length feature film. Despite your reservations, know that this is wonderful, because it turns out quaaludes are much funnier than marijuana ever was, and we just never knew.
I can't wait till Seth Rogen watches his pal's movie, and his world just crumbles.
DiCaprio and Hill each have a drugged-up set-piece that ranks high amongst the funniest onscreen gags of 2013. The latter's standout involves letting it stand up, and since the moment relies on surprise I will say no more. The former's is undoubtedly the finest scene in the movie, a nearly flawless work of physical comedy that sees Belfort, utterly green around the gills thanks to a super-dose of super-ludes, meet in pitched battle his greatest enemy of all: the stairs. Describing this any further is impossible, so I won't try, but know that saying that this single scene makes watching a three hour movie worthwhile all by itself is hardly any exaggeration.
And if you think I might have missed my mark on how—gloriously—cartoonish the first phase of this film is: DiCaprio and Hill have a scene together, itself also one of the best comedic beats of the year, whose resolution depends crucially upon Belfort drawing a dubious lesson from Popeye the Sailor Man.
But enough about the jokes. The Wolf is also one of 2013's most explicit movies. There is more nudity and intercourse of all kinds in this film than any R-rated picture I've ever seen, and despite being cut (what was more explicit?), and despite the rating actually given (frankly, unfathomably, hypocritically low), the final product should make the actual-NC-17 Shame ashamed, for having such lousy fucking in its movie entirely about fucking, only some of which was supposed to be lousy, and fellow almost-NC-17 Don Jon looks practically impotent in comparison.2 Scorsese here is only an unsimulated sex scene and a cumshot away from a pretty decent hardcore porno—he's so close I'm tempted to call it a flaw that he isn't there, and not going for that ultimate gusto is only forgivable, although it is forgivable, in the context of this being a movie that had to be released in theaters. That said, there's one extended sex scene in particular that is so porn-infused that, despite the emotional and dramtic weight it (supposedly) carries, it's a bit beyond steamy; it's a long take of two hot people putatively fucking, and with a genuine sex patter that I'm not sure I've seen—at least in, er, a non-genre film—since I don't even know. Election?
"Fill me up, Mr. B."
The excess is the alleged point to it all, of course. But if there's no prurient interest to be aroused by these scenes, then they'd be pointless nonetheless. Well, I did not find them pointless, and during key scenes, you might not have found me so, either. Bow-chicka-wow-wow.
And yet, even in the midst of all this high comedy and sex romping, that has very little to do with Wall Street and a lot more to do with the debauchery it affords, there are extended moments of presciption medicine, that hurt much more than they tickle.
Stratton Oakmont, once made a success, employs an army of maggots, just as ready to feed on the corpse of America as its founding partners, and just as ready to party till their faces melt off. Belfort, Azoff, and their cronies want to celebrate, and the novelty's worn off from hiring prostitutes—I learned that they come in three grades! regrettably the price quotes are in 1989 money—to service their stockbrokers at their desks. So now it's time for less bread and more circus, as we learn when we enter into the midst of a conversation about hiring a troupe of little people whom Belfort and friends can throw at a giant dartboard for the kicks. The discussion goes on for three minutes after it stops being funny for its mere outrageousness. It goes on for four minutes after they first begin to refer to each of their prospective human darts as "it." It's so interminable that the first laughs it engendered became head-shaking, slack-jawed awe, and finally at least one audible "Jesus Christ" in my theater.
Here, we get the first real look at abomination. Hill is the star of this scene, using his crypto-improv style to generate nervous titters even as he goes into, literally, Nazi mode. He's also the star of the next, which is in some ways even harder to watch because it's not at all funny, but entirely cruel. Every so often in The Wolf of Wall Street, it shows us the true faces of the people we've been laughing at the whole time (and I can think of no more pointed a metaphor than that poor goldfish).
So far I have almost only raved; but as I alluded, I can rant. For example, the above-described conversation is badly placed, with its payoff having occurred about an hour earlier (the dwarf tossing extravaganza is actually depicted in the first scene of the film, an out-of-order cold open, and if that wasn't enough of a cliche, throw in a sort-of-terrible "This is me. No! Me!" bit to the narration as we cut from a dwarf being launched to Belfort's face).3 Occasional bad editing—and The Wolf of Wall Street has been infamously cut—is a hallmark of the film. I'm almost certain there is a scene of looped dialogue where DiCaprio's mouth isn't moving at all during the take they pasted in. (And no, I'm not talking about the scene where it turns out the unjustly wealthy have telepathy, which is a bizarre non sequitur, but which is actually very funny, and unfortunately never reprised. This other scene, unless DiCaprio's mouth flaps were just subliminal, was a legit mistake.)4
But much worse, at a certain point, the movie stops being a satire of the kind of parasite we have, as a society, so far deemed indispensable to the workings of our economy, and it stops being a hilarious parade of horribles featuring the ridiculous things they get up to with other people's money.
"Oh, name one."
It decides, instead, that it has been a character piece this whole time. It does not, of course, come close to working on this level, and there is no reason for anybody to care at all when it tries. This is especially because, at least in this cut, any markers that Jordan Belfort might be human are conspicuously absent. I don't mean that he lacks any redemptive features; that ship long ago sailed, and even when he "cleans up" he's still abominable, probably moreso, because he's not even funny any more. I mean, literally, "human." I mean that he is not obviously possessed of feelings beyond greed and craving. (Well—at best, I might give him "camaraderie," but this is no doubt in part due to DiCaprio's natural charisma, although it is well-suited to a sociopath like Belfort.)
There are scenes where his wife, Naomi, is pregnant with a second child; then there are scenes where she's not; there are, I believe, no scenes in this movie with the actual kid. And before we can imagine this to be subtlest of satires—and that would be kind of distantly comical—there is an intense sequence which demands that we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Belfort gives or has ever given a damn about his other child. If that scene also reveals the depths of his depravity, the mode of this depravity seems alien to him and to us, because it must be rooted in some kind of base-level concern for his family that has never once been displayed.
Problematic, too, are the movie's true story roots. Since this is not, really (or at all), a character study, but invokes a broader canvas, the exact moment at which The Wolf becomes too long, at least too long to be what it ultimately amounts to, can be identified.
That moment arrives unmistakably when, rather than taking the plea bargain that would permit this leech to walk free with every drop of blood he's stolen, Belfort instead reneges on his cushy deal and commits the tragic sin of hubris. This would be the mark of some kind of "character" that may be "studied," and it's a real mistake to start to try this now. Belfort thus stays on as head of Stratton Oakmont, and then things happen in a sequence that I assume approximates reality, and at length Belfort is felled by the FBI's criminal investigator. In real life, as I understand it, Belfort only faced a modicum of justice for his economic crimes, and his victims were never made completely whole; yet the impression you (at least, I) get from the film in itself was that Belfort fell hard from a position not too different from paradise itself; and that he was, indeed, punished. In any event, he does go to jail. He does not appear to pass GO. He does not seem to collect $200.
Scorsese and Winter, in a way, let us off the hook with this. We can leave the theater with the impression that America's villain class gets its comeuppance in the end. Hey, it may take three hours, but people really do get what they deserve.
And if you invest in that, you deserve whatever happens to you.
(But my God: those stairs are awesome.)
1 As for comedies of any stripe, at least those made in America, I believe it's the second longest after It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.↩
2 Eyes Wide Shut: still pretty hot. Could be hotter.↩
3 Also helping open the movie is a commercial in old TV aspect ratio, clearly supposed to be of 1980s/early 90s vintage, that uses modern CGI to render a lion stalking through an office. This is the crappest video source verisimilitude since V/H/S. And while I'm bitching about pointless crap, what the fuck does any version of oft-covered Simon & Garfunkel super-hit "Mrs. Robinson" have to do with going to jail? You tell me.↩
4 And at the same time, even though I have complained about the use of its runtime, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker have nonetheless crafted a three hour movie that still feels remarkably shorter than it is.↩