Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street / **1/2 (2013)

A lively television ad during the opening shots of “The Wolf of Wall Street” refers to the world of investing as a “jungle,” a suggestion that is used ironically as a way of appealing to middle class investors who are intrigued by the stock market but too alienated by the wild mentality of the industry to trust their money in the hands of commission collectors. The sales pitch for the firm known as Stratton Oakmont is less ominous in context; from the mouth of its wealthy founder Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), investing should be a fun (if competitive) enterprise, and his highly experienced staff of professionals is precisely what the average Joe seeks in dabbling into stock trading.  What Jordan doesn’t reveal in his public monologues – yet has no problem admitting in private – is that his eager brokers all work from a generic script perfected by him in his early years with the business, and in flashback sequences we observe the evolution of this calculated civility as he pitches obscure stocks to middle class buyers under elaborate ruses, insisting that potential payouts could help them erase debts and move into higher financial brackets.

The narratives fed to customers are all great works of fiction. In Belfort’s earliest days as a stock market assistant (and then later an actual broker) on the very floor of Wall Street, he was taught a critical lesson as he absorbed the material: don’t ever let your investors sell, otherwise you don’t make your own money. An early role model played by Matthew McConaughey makes one astute observation that sticks with him: “The name of the game is moving the money from the client's pocket to your pocket.” Alas, when the biggest crash outside of the depression rocks the foundation, massive unemployment within the industry is the fallout. Jordan’s luck, however, brings him to the doors of a local investor center specializing in selling “penny stocks,” which are too obscure to be indexed with the major stock exchanges. The fundamental difference: whereas Wall Street proper would earn brokers a mere one percent commission, here is an off-shoot that allows its salesmen to collect 50 percent of the revenue. Combine that with the wealth of knowledge that Belfort inherited from his brief stint in financial ground zero, and a shrewd new way to earn cash emerges for a man who is intoxicated by his own greed.

Martin Scorsese finds all these components intriguing enough to make “The Wolf of Wall Street” exactly the kind of movie its title suggests: a biting essay on the corrupt nature of Wall Street and all its predatory inclinations. The media have established this portrait in our collective consciousness in the recent years because of the incomparable fallout happening there, all of it engineered by people who are undermined by their unshakable conviction to the closed world of financial excess. It’s not hard to see any of this material as being anything less than the absolute truth. What I certainly didn’t expect in return, though, was seeing Hollywood’s most consistent and observant working filmmaker step out of sync with his own fundamental core in telling this story. Ordinarily so self-possessed in both conviction and aesthetic, the same man who made “Taxi Driver” and “The Departed” has revealed the most ambitious disappointment of his career here, a movie that plays less as an insightful critique and more as an exercise in indulgence. How unfortunate to discover this in the middle of material that is timely enough to warrant more echoing qualities.

The movie takes place predominantly through Jordan’s money-hungry eyes; as the founder and proprietor of a successful stock investment company that has just as many secrets as successes, there are occasions where voiceovers become full-on confessions to the camera, and he garbles truths for the satisfaction of holding certain power over his audience. There are also a lot of brutally honest revelations that accompany the details, including one in which his substance addictions (both illegal and prescription) are established succinctly and visually (“I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan”). All around him, meanwhile, people with no other incentive other than to bask in a shadow of wealth and power follow the audacious business model of selling diminutive stocks to middle class workers looking to make a fast buck, yet discouraging them from withdrawing under some false hope that things are always expected to rebound. Forbes magazine reads between the lines of this reality during an interview following Stratton Oakmont’s fast rise to notoriety, and they compare Belfort to Robin Hood’s “rob the rich” mantra when his penny stocks start getting pitched to the top one percent of the wealthiest citizens. Somewhere in the midst of this, the FBI also suspects illegal activity, and Jordan becomes a big target for federal investigation.

Scorsese’s ensemble is assembled with faces that are weathered and ordinary enough to make sense in this material. DiCaprio is very strong in the title role, playing it cagey in earlier scenes when Jordan’s uncertainty basically reduces him to an overdressed bystander, and then kicking into high gear once the money starts rolling in and the pressure of being a successful millionaire starts hitting road blocks. The common bond is that all of Jordan’s initial hires are basically misfits who can be used as lumps of clay for the sake of necessary will-bending, and the casting choices match that sentiment. Jonah Hill as the nerdy but devious Donnie (and Belfort’s eventual successor) plays the material with subtle quirk instead of embellishing on his instinctual need to always have comic timing (even though there are big laughs with him at the center), and when the movie foreshadows grim realities for its players in the final act, he occupies a presence of stalwart resolve. Margot Robbie as Jordan’s beautiful but feisty wife has many great scenes in which her tolerance for the drug and sex induced antics of her husband are met with fiery responses, and Rob Reiner even shows up as Belfort’s father, a man who has profane outbursts in one moment and then is offering subdued (but powerful) observations about his son’s dark path in others.

But what exactly does the movie want to say, or hope to suggest? Is it an indictment against the excessive nature of Wall Street criminals, or a more generalized assessment of corruption and greed? The screenplay by Terrence Winter seems to be at war with establishing a consistent mood. All the obligatory references to political satire are there, but he wraps them in the clout of endless scenes of partying and binging that are grossly overwrought, even for this style of film. In some rare instances, we get scenes that are brilliantly staged (like one in which Jordan takes a hit of cocaine while Popeye cartoons play nearby in the background), but in a lot we get the sense that the filmmakers are merely spinning their wheels (how many scenes do we need of Belfort and his buddies sniffing coke off of breasts and lower region orifices?). If we are to make assumptions based on the well-known characteristic intentions of the director, then the movie can be seen as a full-faceted statement on the closed world of financial criminals. But it is an hour too long, the content is too meandering and the story too caught up in excess to really clarify that intention (or cement the payoff).

When it comes to comparisons between directors, Scorsese defies classification. He is the most dedicated and insightful of modern filmmakers, a man whose career over the span of forty years has resulted in some of the most unforgettable character studies ever made. This time, alas, his attempt to study has gotten lost in the mad haze of drugs, sex and profanity that derail much of the momentum. Watching “The Wolf of Wall Street,” I was instantly reminded of “Casino,” in which similar antics were on display, and sometimes in equal measure. The operative difference, I think, came down to Scorsese’s ability to keep focus on the center while the excess of human pleasures dominated the edges rather than the foreground. Two decades later, the greatest of living filmmakers seems content to allow his characters to be absorbed almost entirely by overpowering decadence. One hopes this isn’t the new trend.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); 2013; Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence; Running Time: 180 Minutes

Leonardo DiCaprio: Jordan Belfort
Jonah Hill: Donnie Azoff
Margot Robbie: Naomi Lapaglia
Matthew McConaughey: Mark Hanna
Kyle Chandler: Agent Patrick Denham
Rob Reiner: Max Belfort
Jon Bernthal: Brad
Jon Favreau: Manny Riskin
Jean Dujardin: Jean Jacques Saurel

Produced by Riza Aziz, Richard Baratta, Leonardo DiCaprio, Danny Dimbort, Georgia Kacandes, Joey McFarland, Alexandra Milchan, Martin Scorsese, Adam Somner, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler and Rick YornDirected by Martin Scorsese; Written by Terence Winter; based on the novel by Jordan Belfort


Anonymous said...

Good review. You nailed it when all the other lapdogs just wagged their silly tails.

elson cade said...

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