Friday, February 21, 2014

In Theaters: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street has been accused of glamorizing the life of Jordan Belfort, a broker who made millions on bad and often fradulent stock deals before being caught and serving a minor sentence in a minimum security prison. And to be sure, it's a very decadent experience, full of sex, wild parties, and frankly absurd displays of opulence for opulence's sake. The mood, however, is not quite aspirational, and not quite cautionary, but something intense, insane, and energetic. Martin Scorcese's work is almost always animated by a kind of mania, and in this case it's ideally suited to confronting the mindset that has dominated the financial world for so long.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort, who began his financial career shortly before the 1987 stock market crash wiped out the company he had just been hired at. Belfort ends up at a slightly less ritzy firm selling penny stocks- stocks not big enough to be listed on the major exchanges- to the poor and easily misled. He decides to strike out on his own, and starts assembling a team which uses the same aggressive sales techniques to get the rich- and apparently just as easily misled- to invest in similarly shady stocks. Belfort becomes insanely rich, and becomes addicted to, well, a lot of things- sex, cocaine, quaaludes, alcohol, ridiculously extravagant purchases, the lot. He dumps his first wife Teresa (Cristin Milloti) for a model named Naomi (Margot Robbie), but they quickly become estranged as well as he starts to disappear into decadence. Instead, his major partner in all this is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who despite a meek exterior has even larger appetites and a clumsier way of indulging himself. The richer they get, the harder it is to handle all the money they have, especially since they're not necessarily supposed to have all of it. And there's an FBI man, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who knows something is going wrong here, but has a long way to go putting it all together.

Much like war, economic gluttony is something that's hard to portray without making it look at least somewhat exciting. Everyone wants to have the good life, and it may not help that we never directly see anyone whose lives were ruined by Belfort's shady dealings. But Scorcese (who fought drug addiction in his own life) creates a sense of vomitous excess easily, adding an oppressive atmosphere to go along with the script's black comedy. It becomes clear that there's a compulsion in Belfort and Azoff and their cohorts' behavior, and underneath it all there's a desire to degrade both others and themselves.

The really surprising thing about the film is just how funny it is. For much of its running time the film is an utterly pitch-black comedy, showing both the absurdity of the characters' depravity and the desperation they have to hang on to their privilege. A sequence with Belfort on a particularly strong dose of quaaludes allows DiCaprio to engage in a level of slapstick I never knew he was capable of. The casting itself provides a few chuckles, notably Jean Dujardin as an unethical Swiss banker and Joanna Lumley as Naomi's aunt who volunteers to be a mule. It's mostly DiCaprio and Hill's show, but with a solid ensemble behind them.

Being based on a true story does limit the film somewhat dramatically. Belfort never quite felt the full sting of the law, and most of the film is a series of narrow escapes that can be frustrating if you're waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's the eternal question of just how sympathetic a character has to be for us to follow them as a protagonist- or, in the absence of sympathy, how compelling they must be. We may not like Jordan Belfort but we can be amazed that it's possible to do what he did and get away with it for so long.

Belfort and Azoff weren't directly involved in the financial shenanigans that precipitated the most recent financial collapse and recession, but the film provides a stunning insight into how those sorts of things happen. We see just how absurd and unreal life can become when money flows freely, bringing with it sex, drugs, and the desire to throw little people onto velcro dartboards. I'm sure there will be those audience members who see this as something to emulate, but some people can't be helped.  For the rest of us it's an entertaining and disquieting experience, a provocative look into a world that has way too much power over our own. We laugh because it would be far too depressing otherwise.

Based on the book by Jordan Belfort
Screenplay by Terence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorcese

Grade: A

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