Thursday, December 26, 2013

"EVERYBODY WANTS MONEY, THAT'S WHY THEY CALL IT MONEY!": A POST-MORTEM OF THE WOLF OF WALL STREET


(Note: since this begins with the last scene of the picture, please be advised that plot details and possible spoilers are discussed in the following.)

The last scene of Martin Scorsese's masterful new picture The Wolf of Wall Street does something few other filmmakers would even think of doing, let alone be able to pull off. Jordan Belfort, as embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom we've just spent the past three hours on quite the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-fucking-roll journey, is introduced by some doof at a salesmanship seminar in New Zealand, with a bunch of eager locals admiring the handsome, long-limbed Belfort as he walks seductively toward them, assuring them that he can teach them the secret to being rich beyond their wildest dreams. He opens with a simple demonstration: “Sell me this pen,” he says, handing a pen to a dude in the front row. The dude stammers something about the pen being a good pen and him liking it. Belfort hands the pen to the guy next to the first guy. Same thing. And he hands it to a third person. Same thing. They're not getting it. Scorsese's camera starts to drift, losing interest with Belfort's failure to get his point across, itself making the point, to quote another Scorsese classic, “Normal people don't act like this!” (with “this” in this case being, like Belfort and his sociopath buddies). Quiet fade to a title card announcing the name of the picture. It's the first subdued note in the entire film, and one that rather coldly, if politely, says: that's quite enough of this, thank you very much. If you've ever had someone you respect say “I'm disappointed in you” instead of getting pissed off and throwing things at you, you know that's worse. This ending is Martin Scorsese rendering that exact and most cruel judgment against the subject of the picture.

It's important to remember that horrible behavior looks exciting and fascinating in Martin Scorsese movies because he's a great filmmaker, not because it actually is. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street's three hours, we see Jordan Belfort behave with utter disregard for anything other than himself, having this way of life affirmed and raised to the level of sacrament by a hilariously matter-of-fact mentor played by Matthew McConaughey. Belfort is under the naïve impression that the idea of being a stockbroker is to make money for the client. McConaugheyoda dismisses this absurdity and, before getting to the important stuff like how many times to jerk off per day and how cocaine is the single greatest thing on the planet, instructs Belfort on the Prime Directive: make as much money for yourself as you possibly can without regard for any law, earthly or heavenly.

This is the very meme that, since the removal of safeguards under Reagan, has repeatedly crashed the American economy and will continue to do so periodically until some semblance of adulthood is restored to the financial industry. Scorsese makes this point tacitly but with brutal clarity in The Wolf of Wall Street, which practically starts with the '87 crash. Rather than take that as a hint, Jordan Belfort decides that the real lesson is that ethical behavior is, as Henry Hill dismissed civilians in Goodfellas, for “suckers, [with] no balls.” Forward, fraud!

While Belfort and his asshole buddies are off robbing everybody blind, they spend ample time in a bestial, testosterone-induced perpetually heightened state, taking ninety different kinds of drugs a day and fucking anything in sight. These episodes provide most of the movie's comedy—and, no bullshit, it's funny as shit—and indelibly memorable moments. The funniest thing in the movie (maybe ever; I almost passed out I was laughing so hard) is this sequence where Belfort and right-hand man Donnie (Jonah Hill) get their hands on a special, long-since-discontinued bottle of Quaaludes, and make the time-honored drug mistake of taking about six times the recommended dose because “this isn't kicking in yet.” Fast-forward an hour and a half, and they've lost control over their central nervous systems, with Belfort taking his infant daughter's crawling as inspiration. The sequence just keeps going: Belfort drives his car home in this state (set up for a payoff after we think it's all over), gets into the goofiest slow-motion fight with Donnie, and finally, intercut with footage on the TV of Popeye eating spinach, snorts a whole vial of cocaine to regain the use of his legs and stand up properly.

It's important to remember why this is funny, though. It's because these two rich assholes are, contrary to the falsehood that simply being a rich asshole is a good thing in and of itself, acting like literal overgrown infants. Everything in the movie, from Jonah Hill's absurd prosthetic teeth (and, for that matter, dick, in the scene where he gets so fucked up on 'ludes that he wanders up to his friend's future wife openly whacking off) to the weird green-screened “idyllic” Swiss landscape when they go to Switzerland to hide their money, to the chimp Belfort carries around the office at one point who's more civil than anyone else working there, is with varying degrees of subtlety pointing out that there is something off in some way, something not right, with all this.

Scorsese knows exactly what he's doing here. He knows it's far more effective to show a bunch of dickheads in suits acting like chimps on crack for three hours than it is to sternly wag his finger as a title card reading “The excesses of capitalism run contrary to moral and ethical behavior, you guys” appears. He knows that if he stages a scene where a woman drags her husband out of a limo where he's been cavorting with his mistress and, on the spot, demands a divorce in front of Trump Tower, someone's going to put two and two together and go “Heh. Nice.” There's no need to overplay his hand just because some actual Wall Street shitheads who don't know how to watch movies are only going to see the drugs and naked strippers and Belfort's defiance of the Feds, and think they're being venerated. He knows you make the movie first and worry about how dummies are going to misread it second, if at all.

Another thing Martin Scorsese knows is how to get performances out of actors. Holy shit. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in easily the best performance in a career full of very good ones as Belfort, where he uses his star power as a tool rather than something to run from in the interests of proving himself a “real” actor. You believe his Jordan Belfort is someone who could inspire this kind of fervent loyalty in his colleagues and subordinates, who could sell anything to anyone, who could seduce anyone. There's even a split second in the scene where he has the FBI agent who wants to bust him (Kyle Chandler) out to his yacht, and it looks like he might bullshit him into accepting “investment advice” in exchange for not busting him for fraud. It doesn't work, though—moral rectitude, thy name circa 2013 or so is Kyle Chandler—and much like an unsuccessful seduction, Belfort pulls a pissy “I never wanted to fuck you anyway” routine as the Feds leave. DiCaprio plays that entire scene beautifully, to say nothing of the physical comedy of all the drug bits, and carries the movie with no visible effort whatsoever; if he has a fault as an actor, it's a tendency to appear to want credit for how hard he's working (however unfair that assessment might be), but that is absent in his portrayal of Belfort.

Jonah Hill leads the supporting cast in an exquisitely horrifying turn as the guy who fucks everything up, and his chemistry with DiCaprio is seamless. Then of course there's Margot Robbie, whose career as a movie star hits the ground running as the second Mrs. Belfort; you know it's a good sign when you're watching someone act and you think “Damn, I'm glad I get to watch her for the next twenty or thirty years.” Everybody's great. Everyone looks like they're having an absolute blast making asses out of the people they're sending up. Kyle Chandler's the only one who doesn't get to join in on that, as the lonely Fed who, by his own admission, could have joined in the bacchanal and become a stockbroker himself but decided to do good and ride the subway, one of Henry Hill's suckers with no balls . . . except in this case he's the one who actually has them.

The principal difference between The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas (well, the second one beyond them not being the same movie) is that where Goodfellas unabashedly made the fun parts of being a gangster look fun—the money, the power, the card games, the part where they wave you to the front of the line at the Copa—The Wolf of Wall Street, drugged-up hijinks aside, strikes a slightly different note. The gangsters in Goodfellas (like, to a slightly lesser extent, Charlie in Mean Streets) do what they do because it's their only ticket to social mobility. The brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street are already in a business where they can get rich and be venerated by a society with an unfortunate ends-justify-the-means attitude toward wealth. Their choice to cheat and steal to become even more rich is a lot less romantic, as a result. Poor people getting rich is cool. Rich people getting richer isn't inherently not cool, but it certainly is less so.

The fact that The Wolf of Wall Street is as hypnotically compelling as it is with such a loathsome cast of characters, and while being about the unrepentant villains who are destroying America, and who will unless they're stopped, is kind of a miracle. Or, put another way, is a Martin Scorsese picture. Not that there should be any doubt about this at this late date, but he is one of the very best to ever take up a motion picture camera, every bit the light for future generations that the likes of John Ford and Michael Powell were to him.