' Cinema Romantico: Wolf of Wall Street

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wolf of Wall Street

Our exceptionally dastardly protagonist of the title, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a renegade but smart and swank Wall Street buccaneer, has just discovered his home is under FBI surveillance. As it happens, his lieutenant is making a call that could ruin both of them and everybody else. Two problems. One, Jordan is not home, having gone to the nearby country club to necessarily call from a pay phone. Two, he has popped a few too many of the Lafite Rothschild of Quaaludes and, thus, has lost all sense of motor skills. No matter. He crawls (literally) to his Lamborghini and somehow climbs in and somehow drives home to deliver the warning. "I'm lucky I didn't get an accident," he whimsically advises in voiceover.

Except the next morning he awakes to find a couple cops towering over him. They want to know if he drove his Lamborghini last night, the Lamborghini parked in his driveway that is smashed and dented to bits. The film flashes back and see what really happened - that is, a severely impaired Jordan ramming into cars and plowing into utility poles and running over mailboxes and up onto lawns. The implication is clear. The wheelers and dealers, the wolves of wall street and pups they are nurturing, are only receptive to the former rather than the latter, not merely indifferent to the destruction they leave in the wake of their sinful mayhem but blind to it.


Jordan is a product of Bayside, Queens, across the East River, which is not quite Bay Ridge, Brooklyn (though his eventual trophy wife, played by a flinty and bosomy Margot Robbie, hails from there), the mystical land in "Saturday Night Fever" from which young and desperate men would longingly gaze across the dirty water at Manhattan and what may well have been to them The Lost City Of Z. But whereas those men of another era were content to lose themselves in the lights of the disco floor, Jordan is determined to get rich quick and ventures deep into the canyons of New York City's financial district.

Landing a crummy job at a high line Wall Street firm, he meets his mentor, Mark Hanna, played in a delicious cameo by Matthew McConaughey as a laconically crazed Jedi Knight, who sets the template for the three hour ride to come by preaching the virtues of cocaine, which makes your fingers type faster, and "feeding the geese", which relaxes you, as a means to make money. Which Jordan does, until 1987's Black Monday when the firm goes under and Jordan is back on his own.

He quickly re-invents himself at a fly-by-night penny stock outfit in a strip mall in Long Island, discovering that his dive bomb sales tactics can easily persuade the poor and hungry to pledge scads of cash toward flailing investments. It's a perfect win-lose scenario - as in, Jordan wins, they lose, and screw 'em, because if they're dumb enough to give him his money they don't deserve to have it anyway. This is, more or less, Jordan's entire message encapsulated in a line, though he continually delivers it to his in-awe company minions in curse-stained monologues that are like a cross between Tony Robbins and a pentecostal preacher with white powder stains on his nose.

This would be an opportune moment to advise that while "Wolf of Wall Street" was adapted by Terence Winter, it was directed by Martin Scorsese, and the infamous hallmarks of the grandmaster are on full display. The loaded soundtrack is wielded for maximum effect and all assortment of editing tricks are utilized not simply to enhance the experience but to effectively communicate the story. This, for instance, is not a story about how hard work trumps all. It's a lightning quick way to the top, and Scorsese and his longtime editing cohort Thelma Schoonmaker underscore this with a myriad of quick cuts graduating Belfort from his questionable digs in Long Island to a jam-packed edifice in Lower Manhattan. The reward is what matters here, not the means to it and not the eventual reaping, and Scorsese drives that point home again and again, but briskly, and always intentionally undercutting it.

Jordan looks the camera in the eye and begins to explain in explicit detail precisely how the ruse his company, Stratton Oakmont, perpetrates works and then......cuts it short. "It doesn't matter," he declares. "What matters is this-" At which point Jordan's lieutenant, Donnie, relays a certain carnivorous dollar figure. The bottom line, baby. Donnie is played by a lunatic Jonah Hill, sporting big framed glasses and a Long Island accent that suggests Mike Francesa if he had chosen stocks rather than sports radio. Often the funniest thing in any given scene of drugs, debauchery and nakedness is Hill off to the side in the background, watching with a stoned-out vacant look, as if alluding all the while to a willful ignorance of the happening.


It would not at all be improper to note the structural debt paid to "Goodfellas", though the fall of Henry Hill is much more pronounced than the fall of Jordan Belfort, which I would argue is decidedly on purpose. This is not to suggest Belfort is positioned as a redemptive or complicated character. Far from it, and DiCaprio commits to playing him insistently one-dimensional, a gonzo addict hellbent on getting rich, having sex and popping pills. Repeatedly he is placed in potential Come-to-Jesus moments, and essentially each time he turns his back on it, never more spectacularly than when he is about to cut a deal with the SEC and walk away from his company, only to relent at the very last instant because his ego and lasciviousness will not allow it.

That the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) on Belfort's trail appears and then disappears for a large swath of time is not coincidental, just as the utter neglect of camera time for Belfort's two daughters in a two hour and fifty-nine minute film is not coincidental. We, in fact, do not even know Belfort has had a daughter until it's mentioned long after the fact, nor do we know he is having a second until his wife enters the frame with a quite-clearly pregnant belly. Consequence and Family Life are of no interest to Belfort, and so they are kept tucked away off camera.

The film's final third is an absurdist descent into horror, though not quite complete self-destruction, because Scorsese and Winter are willing to admit that even though a character like Belfort deserves to be tossed into a Bond-like pool of sharks, our world simply does not work this way. Our world, to quote an oft-espoused cliche, is what we make of it, and too often the bankers and brokers fashion this world in their image. So even though Belfort is condemned to prison, the only scene we see of him in prison is set on a tennis court, strictly time off. And thus, the film comes full circle.

Tellingly, “Wolf of Wall Street” ends not with a close-up of DiCaprio, who has been on screen for virtually every frame, but DiCaprio re-fashioned as a motivational speaker teaching suckers to sell him a pen. No one seems able or willing, and the camera glides over the top of the audience - us - as we watch and contemplate, asking us what we think of the preceding three hours. One man’s thought: take that pen, Belfort, and shove it up your ass.

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