Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Rates:  *  *  * 

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a character you've met before. He's young, brash and driven entirely by the pursuit of money. Even if you haven't met him in real life, then you'd certainly know him from countless movies and TV shows, where his type is often used to drive plots and score points about the rotten-ness of modern, American style, capitalism.

Jordan Belfort is an archetype: The wide eyed nobody in pursuit of the American dream.

At the start of this movie, Belfort lands an entry level job for a big Wall Street firm in the mid eighties. You know he's a bit green because he rides the bus to work and is polite to his managers, most of whom treat him like an exceptionally foul piece of garbage. The lone exception is eccentric broker Mark Hannah (an electric Matthew McConaughey) who takes the youngster under his wing and teaches him a few things about life in the fast lane (none of which would be fit for discussion in polite company).

Belfort is quickly hooked.

He thrives on the hustle and adrenalin of the financial markets and aggressively works his way up to a trading spot. And then... October 19, 1987. Black Monday; collapse, ignominy, disgrace. Our hero barely has a chance to start abusing his own underlings before the firm he works for goes under and he is swept back to the suburbs.

Starting over, Belfort takes a job at the very bottom of the financial food chain, trading penny stocks (stocks for companies that are too small to list on the stock market) for a tiny firm that operates in a strip mall. But his brief tenure on Wall Street has served him well. His polished sales pitch and relentless approach soon enables him to turn this crummy position into a lucrative money spinner. Never mind that the stocks he trades are, essentially, worthless.

Belfort does so well that he is soon able to break out on his own. He starts his own firm and takes, for his initial batch of traders, a loose collection of some of his old high school friends, who look and act like the cast of Dazed and Confused ten years on. Conventional money industry people they are not. But Belfort is able to coach, bully, cajole and bribe them into following his sales script and, within another short space of time, has them all fleecing the suckers, right alongside him.

The firm, given the grand sounding name of Stratton Oakmont, expands and expands again. It's a bona fide American success story... only with hookers and cocaine. Although, come to think of it, what could be more American than these things? Only money, and Stratton Oakmont is awash with that as well.

As the millions roll in, Belfort and his friends kick start a kind of never ending, competitive, workplace party. As well as prostitutes, and more and varied types of drugs, there are also dwarves, marching bands, animals, fist fights, a river of booze, vomit and every type of public embarrassment you could ever imagine. Brokers who can hack the pace, and survive the lifestyle, make a lot of money, and most of the firm's clients do not.

Belfort leads the charge, adopting the most outrageous tactics at work and play, outdoing everyone in his consumption of everything. He buys mansions, fancy cars, an enormous yacht and a helicopter and trades in his plain Jane wife for a supermodel babe in the time it takes to listen to one line of voice over. He indulges his appetites so outrageously that you start to feel a bit hungover and tired on his behalf.

The outcome of all of this chaos is predictable. The authorities eventually move in, shut down the firm and make a few arrests (Belfort spends 22 months in jail for insider trading). They turn off the music and tell everyone to go home. A brief epilogue makes it clear that Belfort has learned nothing from what has happened to him and, in the final scene, even seems to indicate that he's still out there somewhere, planning his comeback...

To say that The Wolf of Wall Street is over the top is to show considerably more restraint than any of the characters depicted. This is a story of excess. And excess on top of excess.

Director Marty Scorsese has shown us this type of character, and similar stories, before. A lot of pundits have drawn a comparison between this movie and his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas, and there is some validity in placing them alongside one another. The arc of the central characters - young innocent thrives in a shifty environment, success goes to his head, ends up losing everything - is the same in both, and the underlying message of each movie - the darkness that shadows much of the glitter of America - is also similar.

But where Goodfellas is a rapier, this movie is a bludgeon. Or, like a truckload of bludgeons being dynamited and driven off a cliff. TWoWS is long on style, like all of the director's films, but short on subtlety. It is also about half an hour longer than Goodfellas, which is telling when the narrative is set across about one fifth of the time. Excess seems to be at play not just on screen, but behind the scenes.

That being said, there's plenty here to distract your attention.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a memorable performance as the hyperactive, amoral narrator and even manages to imbue a little charm into someone who, by any objective analysis, should be totally reprehensible. He is well backed by a game supporting cast, who cut loose as the movie requires. Jonah Hill is hilarious, if a bit one note, as Belfort's right hand man and fellow traveler, and there are nice turns from Rob Reiner as Belfort's father and Margot Robbie as his trashy wife.

The production design, sets and costumes are all what you would expect from a top shelf director like Scorsese, who also shows he still knows his way around a set piece. And there are laughs to be had throughout, particularly crazed scenes involving delayed reaction Quaaludes and much funny dialogue. In fact, the movie works best when it plays as a black comedy, and isn't stretching for anything else. It's difficult to know what you could take away from this, besides a few belly laughs, in any case.

And this may indicate what keeps this movie from really making much of an impression. If your film is about shallow, narcissistic people, perhaps there is no way you can make a wholly satisfying film about them. The end result is as hollow as the lifestyles depicted.

So while TWoWS is technically slick and a bit of nasty fun, the experience of watching it is an empty one. Even numbing. And three hours of this is a lot to take.

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