The Wolf of Wall Street

Vainglorious Bastards

wallstreet2Martin Scorsese is old. Not that I consider early seventies to be numerically ancient, but certain things happen to male filmmakers in their twilights that I thought might bypass the director of Taxi Driver: the women in their films get younger and nuder, concept rides shotgun while characters are locked in the trunk, and indulgence is mistaken for brilliance. I cannot speak for Scorsese in the literal sense, obviously, but The Wolf of Wall Street illustrates just how irresponsible the popular film industry can be.

The spectacle revolves around Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).  This is where I would normally delve into the protagonist’s involvement in the story, but this film does not have one, nor does it have any semblance of plot structure.  Belfort doesn’t actually do much of anything.  At the beginning, we know he’s already an accomplished stockbroker and con man, but we are still plunged into flashbacks about how he got there, followed by endless barely-connected scenes of vulgarity and debauchery that go on for far too long and emphasize the superiority of the wealthy ad nauseum in between tireless references to Scorsese’s and Terence Winter’s earlier work (Cristin Milioti as a carbon copy of Lorraine Bracco’s character from Goodfellas, DiCaprio crashing an aircraft, overt use of the word “schnook,” old footage of Steve Buscemi, and so on).

DiCaprio claims that the filmmakers purposely focused on Belfort’s schemes and deliberately left out anything about his victims so that the audience would become completely desensitized.  I refuse to believe that Scorsese would resort to such an amateurish “making a transparent point” technique.  On top of that, the film’s nihilism is subverted by the fact that it still contains conflict: we are supposed to care about Belfort’s marriage problems (despite the fact that he regretlessly cheats on both of his wives with hookers, dominatrixes, and each other), supposed to root for him to escape doomsday scenarios brought on by his own drug addiction and apathy, and supposed to be as riled up as his legions of fraudulent goons by his painfully protracted diatribes.

In Arbitrage, we were stuck with a protagonist who also happened to be a fraud-committing billionaire, a cheater, and a killer, but that film’s narrative was totally conscious of who the character was, and made great thematic points about the evils of the corporate world and how people with money get away with everything.  Wolf, though, is indulgence incarnate.  Belfort at no point relinquishes control, thinks he’s wrong, or evolves as a character (the latter of which would be fine if something around him changed, or there was another character to care about).  The film as a whole amounts to little more than an instructional video on how to be a vain asshole.  It’s a film comprised entirely of what would have been deleted scenes in any other film.  Belfort, like Richard Gere’s Robert Miller, more or less gets away at the end, and remains the person he was at the beginning, even though he’s in a minimum security prison, and the film even promotes the real-life criminal Belfort’s current motivational speaking seminars.  Why not make mention of the fact that Belfort was also legally required to provide restitution to his victims, and to this day has failed to do so?  Why strip away every shred of conscience or growth from the story’s characters and narrative?  Why pander to the very evildoers upon whom the movie focuses?  They’re not the only ones who can afford movie tickets, you know.

The film’s dialogue sets new records for offending everyone possible (and not in a funny or ironic way, though I suspect that the filmmakers think of it as such).  It goes without saying that every woman in the movie is a prostitute, naked, debased, objectified, publicly humiliated, or all five.  The “hookers” all have porn-star bodies and operate with a machinelike happiness, which is sad in and of itself, but especially heartbreaking when considering that Scorsese made Taxi Driver, one of the first films that truly and honestly expressed the fact that despite their profession, prostitutes are people with souls who might rather be doing something else.  The C-word is used enough times to make any of the characters from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels say “Okay, enough already.”  Little people are mistreated and talked about like animals, the only black people in the movie are servants or extras, the non-wealthy characters are portrayed as grubby and unhappy and jealous of the wealthy (including the FBI agent who finally nabs Belfort, played by Kyle Chandler), the word “fag” is thrown around in 12-year-old-boy fashion, and there’s even a derogatory reference to cerebral palsy.  Worst of all, the film takes no ownership of any of this.  The filmmakers are content to keep their distance and let us believe that this is simply how these people behave.  But as any (good) writer will tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.  And when you have this big an audience, you cannot keep your distance from the social consequences.  Boys see a movie like this and adopt its ableist language (not to mention value the bullshit it venerates).

The film also has no fourth wall, with Belfort narrating the entirety of the film via thematic voiceover (one of the cheapest devices in film), and also by sometimes looking right at the camera and speaking to us as if we’re walking through the offices with him.  Wait, who are we supposed to be?  His fucking stenographer?  Mark Twain you are not, Mr. Belfort.  There is no explanation for these sequences (even a four-camera, sweep-pan-abusing TV series like The Office made the effort of explaining the “found footage” narrative, despite countless other shows not offering the same concession), and there are often voiced-over one-liners that are supposed to be funny, but do nothing other than explain exactly what just happened.  For example, his wife’s aunt (Joanna Lumley) blatantly flirts with him.  Then there’s a long, unrealistic shot of Belfort’s face, over which he narrates, “Jesus; is she fuckin’ hitting on me?”  Is this necessary in a film that already breaches three hours and actually has nothing to do with this relationship? It might work if this technique were employed in every other scene, but it only happens here, and the tense of the voiced-over Belfort’s narrative is never consistent.

Here we have an indulgent disaster that glorifies drug addiction (going so far as using the snorting of coke as a way to save someone’s life), is lazily edited, features plenty of DiCaprio dry-humping an actress practically half his age (Margot Robbie, whose character’s one-dimensionality and anti-feminism are only further drilled in by the fact that her sole power in the film is her sexual irresistibility), defies any and all logic, internal or otherwise, and basically tells us that if we have a problem with it, we’re just jealous that we’re not wealthy.  If anything, this film is Belfort’s final con: getting the world to worship him by indirectly manipulating one of the planet’s most revered filmmakers (who in turn will also profit from and be worshipped for the film).

wallstreetThe Wolf of Wall Street (2013); written by Terence Winter; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Get Him to the Greek

When the world slips you a Jeffrey, stroke the furry wall

Comedy lost its footing a bit when the “frat pack” movies became the norm.  Anchorman, Zoolander, Talladega Nights and so on – not that they weren’t funny and didn’t have their place, but there was a certain immaturity and high-school level intelligence about them that made me groan whenever a trailer came on.  With recent efforts such as The Hangover, Date Night and Get Him to the Greek, well-written films with both hilarity and heart, the comedy planets may be aligned again.

Get Him to the Greek is a thoughtful story disguised as a gross-out comedy.  The difference with films like this in comparison to the frat pack movies is that there’s a nice diversity and freshness to the cast.  In Anchorman, you had Will Ferrell and Steve Carell and Paul Rudd and Ben Stiller messing around.  In Talladega Nights, you had the same group of buddies doing something else.  These actors have all moved on to better and more mature projects, stepping aside for those of us who are ready for wittier comedies in a day and age where we get almost daily reminders about how the American public’s intellect and patience are devolving.

This film features comedian Russell Brand reprising his brief role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall: the druggie rockstar Aldous Snow.  He is deepened this time around, dealing with his personal rehabilitation and family problems, as well as his ex-girlfriend Jackie Q (Rose Byrne) who happens to be dating Metallica’s Lars Ulrich.  Ulrich appears as himself and receives the butt-end of some nice self-deprecating jokes, the best of which is Brand’s line, “Go sue Napster, you little Danish twat.”  The main action of the film follows Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) as he attempts to please his controlling girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss).  After suggesting to his totalitarian boss, Sergio Roma (Sean Combs), that the best course of action for the music industry is to bring attention back to “real music,” Aaron is tasked with delivering Snow to a reunion show at the Greek Theater in LA.  Tension is high since Snow’s last album, released ten years prior, was an incredibly racist and insensitive ballad about Africa, though I’m not sure which would be more harmful to young music-television viewers in the real world; “African Child” or Jackie Q’s “Ring ‘Round,” which as she says in the film, is about her…well, just go see the film.  The well-produced music video interludes and news stories, which often feature annoying real-life celebrities acknowledging that they’re annoying, is worth the price of admission.

It’s a nice premise with good, not-so-incredibly-blockbuster-level-famous-celebrity actors in the lead roles.  Brand and Hill are still low enough on the Hollywood food chain that they have to actually act to convince an audience, and these performances are genuine.  The plot gives plenty of room for serious interaction between the two, as well as the great appearance of Colm Meaney in a supporting role as Snow’s money-grubbing father.  Sean Combs, the gratingly obnoxious hip-hop mogul (apparently turned actor), more or less plays himself in this film.  Needless to say, he’s right at home playing a loud, abusive, uncaring, over-the-top boss, and the role is limited enough that his appearances are refreshing and funny.  

It’s worth noting that Brand actually performs the songs in the film, and when it comes time for him to sing, he sings.  In fact, the producers were so confident in Brand’s vocal prowess that the entire soundtrack features purely original tracks from the film (including Jackie Q’s thinly-veiled innuendo anthems).  It’s an inspired decision because Brand’s rockstar character is not a novelty act; he’s portrayed as a serious artist with serious problems, and the fact that this actor is the frontman of a band is not the joke (whereas Will Ferrell’s comedies – the previously mentioned ones as well as Semi-Pro and the upcoming The Other Guys function on the novelty of Ferrell himself holding position X).  

A film hilarious enough to brighten a rainy day or entertain a high-school teen, but heartfelt and thoughtful enough to please the filmgoer who wants real characters and a good story, this one is worth getting to the theater to see We have a strict “no cliche” rule here; sorry.  Suffice it to say that if you’re only going to see one summer-opening comedy, you should make it this one.

 Get Him to the Greek (2010); written and directed by Nicholas Stoller; starring Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, Rose Byrn and Elisabeth Moss

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