Friday, January 03, 2014

A Wolf in the Fold

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but I have a short list of filmmakers whose films I try to see at the first opportunity, often the first night they open near me if circumstances allow. One of the names on my own list is Martin Scorsese and I doubt I'm alone in this. Marty is some kind of living icon of cinephilia these days, due to his work on film preservation and outreach. Even if he never made another film and confined himself to these tasks, he would be one of the most important and revered people in film.

Marty and I have been having a bit of a falling out in recent years. I hated his Oscar-winner, The Departed, and only half-liked Shutter Island, which is ridiculous but lovely. I did love Hugo, but I haven't felt the urge to watch it again. One thing that has really bothered me in recent years about Scorsese is the obnoxious way his films push women to the margins in favor of an aggressive masculinity. That's a strain of his filmmaking that really comes to the fore in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a film that wallows in dude-bro masculinity and its misogynistic dark side. It's a tumescent film that comes to the screen with its rampant cock pointing straight at the audience. It then proceeds to stroke it furiously for the next three hours(!) before dousing them, bukkake-like in the jizz of its own self-indulgence.

The Wolf of Wall Street is one Jordan Belfort, who we follow through two decades of misdeeds in the financial sector. He starts as a broker in 1987, just before the big crash, The crash forces him to find an alternative career path, and he finds it at a suburban penny stock outfit, where he first discovers that he can game the system with high-pressure sales and an amoral drive to make money. Soon, he founds his own company and staffs it with similar amoral grifters. His rise to power is fueled by lax regulation, half the coke in Colombia, wild sex parties, and Quaaludes. And money, of course. Lots of money. Speaking directly to the fourth wall, Belfort tells us that money is the ultimate drug.  Belfort, at the height of his wealth and hubris fancies himself as a Bond villain. He even hires Shirley Bassey to sing Goldfinger at his wedding. Belfort's success attracts the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham, who begins to chip away at Belfort's empire, and soon Belfort is ensnared by the moral dilemma of saving his own skin and ratting out his friends or going to prison for twenty years. Ever the sociopath, Belfort rats out his friends.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

This film is a spiritual cousin to Goodfellas and Casino, with which it forms a loose trilogy. Cinematically, Belfort's direct dialogue with the audience is of a piece with Henry Hill's narration of Goodfellas. Like Goodfellas, this is a film about sociopathy as a lifestyle. It's a lot like the drug-fueled final act of that film telescoped out to three hours. Like Casino, this film is fascinated by not only the corruption provided by obscene wealth, but also by the manipulation of money in and of itself. The character arc of The Wolf of Wall Street is more similar to Casino, as well, with the trophy wife and the unreliable business partners and the shell games required to stay in business. And yet, it's unlike both of those movies. This is a surreal re-interpetation of Scorsese's cinematic anima as the most elaborate douche-bro comedy ever made. The emphasis on outre scenes of sex and drugs is well beyond the more blue-collar criminals of Scorsese's past. If there's a film with a closer kinship with this film than Goodfellas or Casino, it's Caligula. I can totally see Belfort--whacked out of his mind--making his horse into a Wall Street broker. That's a stunt that would be all of a piece with the bachelor party in Vegas or the scene of snorting coke out of a sex worker's ass.

There's a moral dimension to this. I think that we're intended to revile Belfort, but the movie does something that makes that revulsion palatable. There is a conscious decision to avoid depictions of the wreckage left by Belfort and people like him. We see only inside the palace. We don't see the peasants scrambling for crumbs. This is seductive. There are two scenes in the film where this seduction is elided within the film frame. The first follows the publication of the Forbes article that dubbed Belfort with his moniker, "The Wolf of Wall Street." Belfort freaks out at the negative tone of the article, but his first wife tells him that all publicity is good. And so it is. The next day, he's deluged with applications from people wanting to work for him. In the second scene, after Belfort's fall from Olympos, we see Agent Denham riding home on a subway. There's a wistful look on his face, and we recall Belfort's attempts to bribe him. The wheels are turning. The temptation was obviously there. There's a hint of regret. Kyle Chandler's performance in this scene, which is brief, is pitch perfect. This moral dimension is troubling, because this film walks a fine line. It's as ensorcelled by Belfort as the Street was, I think, and there's a large contingent of the audience who will view him, like Gordon Gekko before him, as a half-assed Randian anti-hero dragged down by the Lilliputians of government and regulation. There's a contingent of the audience that will envy him and glory in his excess. This seems marginally irresponsible to me, but I don't know how they could have had it otherwise. The horrors that Belfort and those like him foisted upon the world are nothing compared to the gaudy yacht, the room full of sex workers, and the lines of blow running over their naked flesh.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

It goes without saying that the filmmaking in The Wolf of Wall Street is top drawer. After all this time, Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker are virtuosos at their craft. Such is Marty's status in the industry, he can get the best actors without a problem and the performances--particularly the minor performances by Chandler and Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's first boss--are all fine, and both Joanna Lumley and Jean Dujardin are more than fine in memorable supporting roles. Jonah Hill continues to carve out a quirky film career as Belfort's out-of-control partner, Donnie Azoff. This is Leonardo DiCaprio's fifth film with Scorsese, and by now he's at ease as a collaborator. His Belfort is charming, garrulous, and magnetic. The big surprise among the actors is Margot Robbie, who is painfully gorgeous as Belfort's second wife. She gets one of the film's funniest, sexiest scenes when she attempts to exert control of Belfort with the power of her pussy.

Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street

Therein lies some of my ambivalence toward this film. And ultimately, I am ambivalent about it. I admire its craft and I enjoyed every second of it. But, man, let me tell you, the reek of testosterone and expensive cologne my mind's nose smells on this film is off-putting.  The reduction of womens' worth to sex toys and trophy wives is horrid. There's a short scene mid-film when Belfort details the virtues and drawbacks of the sex workers he brings into the office that's palpably disgusting. Belfort reduces women to the status of livestock here. Oh, I know, I know! Depiction doesn't imply endorsement and he's careful to populate his pool of stock-brokering extras with a few women and Joanna Lumley is every bit the grande dame in her handful of scenes, but the last film Scorsese made with any kind of empathy for women as something other than madonnas or whores or crazy bitches was Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which was forty years ago.

Still, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't beguiled by this film. It's a long movie, true, but I didn't feel it's length. From scene to scene, it's so slick and assured that you almost can't help falling under its spell. Belfort and his world are like a cobra that way. But we all know what happens to birds when they look into the eyes of a cobra, right?

1 comment:

crow said...

Do you think there's another Alice in him and would you somewhat forgive his forty years of absence in strong female roles if such a film came down the pike after leaving you rather jaded?