Friday, December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (O)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A-)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

I do believe that any contemporary moralist thinking about writing about American films ought to take a look at a collection of Martin Scorsese's films.  Let's make a list: Taxi Driver [1976], Raging Bull [1980], The Last Temptation of Christ [1988]Goodfellas [1990], Casino [1995].  This is _not_ to give Scorsese (or any other film-maker) a free pass, but it can serve to help the moralist film critic focus his/her thoughts and questions.  It's obvious from this above list that Scorsese prefers _edgy_ material (indeed, his choices would fill-out the definition of what is meant by the often lazy if popular term "edgy").

Now choosing "edgy" material is certainly _not_ in itself bad.  It _can_ reflect a concern for those living at the margins (Taxi Driver [1976] or even The Last Temptation of Christ [1988] where Christ in both Nikos Kazantzakis' book and in Scorsese's film is portrayed through the lens of the Hymn of the Suffering Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) "He had no stately bearing, no beauty to draw us near, he was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, like one from whom you turn your face, spurned and we held him no esteem" (Isaiah 53:2-3) which actually gets proclaimed annually in the Catholic Church as part of its Good Friday Liturgy).  Then Raging Bull [1980], Goodfellas [1990] and Casino [1995] are about rarified, largely inaccessible subcultures -- the world of boxing and then the mob.   

Recognizing this, one could ask Scorsese about (or question, period) the value of glamorizing the lives of "people on the edge" of psychosis like the protagonists of Taxi Driver [1976] and Raging Bull [1980] or the value of arguably glamorizing crime as in Goodfellas [1990] and Casino [1995] or the value of taking-up an approach to Jesus that was certainly going to confuse (and with proper provocation, enrage) a good number of Christian believers.  Of the list of Scorsese's films that I give above, I do believe that the least justifiable one was probably Goodfellas [1990] because I really don't know what it added to society except "another Godfather-like film" and Francis Ford Copolla already did that.  I do think that Casino [1995] added something new to society/culture/humanity as it provided viewers an absolutely devastating primer on how Las Vegas/the modern gambling industry in the United States works and how there's absolutely _no way_ for someone to go to Las Vegas and actually win.

One then could go through Scorsese's films scene by scene and ask if their often searingly graphic imagery was truly necessary: Did it add something substantial to the story or not?  Could the _same message_ be expressed in a less graphic/shocking/controversial way?  I do think that _most_ of Scorsese's cinematography would actually "pass muster" if put to this test BUT that challenging him (and other film-makers of his vein) to justify his/their use/recourse to graphic imagery would make for better films.  

With all this in mind, let's then turn to the film being considered here The Wolf of Wall Street [2013] (directed, of course, by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Terence Winter, based on the "tell all" semi-autobiographical book by Jordan Belfort).

In the spirit of Raging Bull [1980], Goodfellas [1990] and Casino [1995], this film, The Wolf of Wall Street [2013], considers the rarified world (and excesses) of stock-trading, certainly a timely subject since in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis perhaps 80-90% of the Americans, if given a chance, would probably want to lynch the stock brokers who work on Wall Street, even as, let's be honest, most would envy their life-styles.  Scorsese then plays on this mix of fascination, envy and rage.  And certainly, Leonardo DiCaprio playing the lead role of Jordan Belfort (again, the film's based on Belfort's own "tell all" semi-autographical book) plays his role of a rags-to-riches-to-a-hole (but still with something of a heart) persona to the nines.

I saw this film at a later-night showing filled with young people the vast majority of whom were of the same blue-collar/city-worker socioeconomic class as my parish and watching their reactions to the movie was as fascinating as the movie itself: the simultaneous rage at and admiration of Belfort's lifestyle was palpable.

Afterall, Belfort's shown at the beginning of the film starting as a neophyte stock broker just out of college working for some big Wall Street firm and actually after only a few months on the job, he loses it in the "Black Monday" crash of the late 1980s.  However, learning something from his mentor at that firm (a bit role actually though played magnificently by Matthew McConaughey) about never letting the person that one's selling to say "no," and encouraged then by his first wife "from the old neighborhood sweetheart" Teresa (played by Cristin Milioti) Belfort takes a job in Queens at a "penny stock" firm and never looks back.

Now sure "penny stocks" are nonsense but then he's already learned that many/most of the non-blue chip stocks sold on Wall Street are utterly unpredictable (basically nonsensical) as well.  Soon he begins his own "penny stock" selling business, hiring "the best" salespeople that he knew from his old neighborhood -- Nicky Koskoff aka 'Rugrat' (played by P.J. Byrne), Robbie Feinberg aka 'Pinhead' (played by Brian Sacca), Alden Kupferberg aka 'Sea Otter' (played by Henry Zebrowski), Chester Ming (played by Kenneth Choi) -- most having previously distinguished themselves in mostly "selling weed."  Well, he teaches them how to sell stocks over the phone and the business just goes through the roof.  Along the line he picks up Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) who was simply stunned that someone, _anyone_ from his neighborhood could possibly be making as much money as Belfort was making.

As business continues to boom, Belfort's first wife eventually challenges him to start selling something other than just "penny stocks" to "suckers" from back-grounds such as theirs.  SO ... he changes the mix ... Since he had been an actual licensed stock-broker, he begins to sell (and soon has his whole company sell) actual "Blue Chips" _along_ with the penny-stocks, but now targeting rich people.  With a now trained (and still hungry) sales-force AGAIN business just rises to a whole new level, to the point that he could move his business to Manhattan and become a still "newcomer" but "basically legit" stock-brokerage firm.  With this, they catch the attention of the venerable Forbes Magazine.  They write a hatchet job about his firm and its debauched greedy lifestyle/culture -- Each week would end with a weekly act of debauchery (hookers, drugs, dwarf tossing, one Friday, they paid one of their secretaries 10-grand to just have her head shaved in front of everybody).  No matter.  Now Belfort has college grads pounding on his door wanting to "get in." 

Now this kind of "we can do anything" arrogance, of course, carries with it inevitable problems.  Every last one of them become drug addicts, Belfort dumps his first wife who arguably helped him get where he was for an (also) clawing-climbing Brooklyn model named Naomi (played by Margot Robbie).  And finally, their loudness brings in the Feds lead by (also) Brooklyn residing F.B.I. agent Patrick Denhem (played magnificently by Kyle Chandler).  Initially, Belfort thinks that he could just buy him off, inviting him to his GIGANTIC YACHT which he brags to Agent Denhem would be "fit for a Bond villain."  But Denhem, even if coming from a similar part of NYC as Belfort did, is not interested.

The rest of the movie then ensues.

Okay, like most of Scorsese's films, this one is heavy on the graphic imagery ... the hookers (dressed and undressed), the drugs, even talk (at least) of dwarf tossing.  Was it all necessary to tell the story?  Great question.  CERTAINLY the film DESERVES (IN SPADES) its R-rating.  But I find it hard to imagine a PG-version of this film that would carry the same impact:  Belfort is shown in Scorsese's film as someone that many of us (at least in part) would want to be -- confident, successful, rich, lucky, indeed, almost-Godlike -- but he's also portrayed as a jerk (a real "a-hole") as someone who clearly dumped his first wife, "trading up" for a model, someone who came to believe that he could simply buy anything, and someone who came to believe that he could defy the laws of both medical science (with his increasingly insane drug abuse) and physics (he orders the captain of his "yacht fit for a Bond villain" to travel into a storm that nearly kills them all).  And while he did have good qualities too (he showed an obvious loyalty to those who he hired into his firm) he also is portrayed as showing no sense of mercy/responsibility toward the people (often of his original social class) that he swindled to get rich.  All this is portrayed quite clearly in the film.  So it's hard to believe that ANYONE leaving the film would think that Jordon Belfort was a good guy or that he did not pay dearly for his excesses -- and not merely by jail time (which he did end up serving) but also through obvious and painful costs to his personal/family relations.

Anyway, while I would not recommend this film to kids (the film deserves its R-rating), I do believe that the film is ultimately a morality tale: Would you really want to end-up like this guy?  Sure he was rich (for a time) but look at the cost as well.

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1 comment:

  1. Father, not only would I not like to end up like this guy, I never would have wanted any part of his life. For me, at least, this film was not seductive like the iconic 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street. Even the beautiful trophy wife Naomi was not portrayed in a sophisticated fashion that could be attractive to an intelligent man. Ok, ok, she was not supposed to be sophisticated. And yes, she was beautiful and sexy, but not particularly appealing.

    Jonah Hill gave a superlative performance as Donnie. Rob Reiner as Mad Max was convincing briefly as the Greek chorus. The last 30 minutes of the play were dramatic and elicited some genuine emotion, but this was not in keeping with the film's overriding tenor. I thought this film was devoid of character and dry. For instance, we never got a taste of the pain the naive investors must have suffered at the hands of these unscrupulous brokers. Yes, I was disappointed. To be fair, I did not like Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas or Casino when I first saw them, but I now revere them both as classics; however, I do not think my feelings about The Wolfe of Wall Street will evolve to favorable status.