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.

Stand Up Guys

Black suits you

Walken, Arkin, PacinoImagine a film similar to Superbad, but with male retirees as a target audience.  Now picture the lead characters as people who in their younger days aspired to be Michael Corleone and/or any of the dual-pistol-wielding badasses of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films.  You’d expect the result to be an amusing admixture somewhere between a crime film and a buddy comedy, right?  If you answered yes, Stand Up Guys will not surprise you, but if you’re still with me so far, you’ll be happy to get exactly what you expect.

The set-up involves Doc (Christopher Walken) ponderously puttering around before picking up Val (Al Pacino), an old criminal accomplice, from prison, where the latter has just finished serving a 28-year sentence for accidentally killing the evil progeny of criminal mastermind Claphands (Mark Margolis), whose name signifies that he…really wants approval, I guess.  The duo hang around Doc’s apartment and deliver some stiff dialogue (skirting Island Syndrome for the first few minutes), and then Val decides he will do some partying to celebrate his release, even though the Doc he once knew is now an old man with old man habits and an early bedtime.  Soon comes the kicker that gets the main story arc moving: Doc has been ordered by Claphands to kill Val posthaste and deliver his body.  Apparently, the SOB wanted Val to serve every minute of his sentence before being dealt the ultimate payback.  Doc, however, (despite not seeing Val for 28 years) is gentler than he once was, and has fond memories of Val, whom he now realizes is his only friend.  Val, it turns out, only did all of this partying because he suspected he was to be killed by Doc, and wonders why his friend hasn’t just gotten it over with already.

The movie is directed by Fisher Stevens, who guest-starred as the ill-fated George Minkowski on LOST.  Stevens structures his movie like any other buddy comedy: through a series of vignettes involving the same protagonists and multiple supporting characters who only appear in their respective segments (I did the same thing with Slices a few years ago, when I was required to follow a set structure, and it’s surprisingly difficult to pull off, namely because you have to justify each segment’s existence in the overall plot; many are inevitably cut).   Claphands breathes down Doc’s neck and makes clear that he must kill Val before 10am or suffer the consequences.  With a full night of freedom left, Doc and Val go on an adventure that begins when Val steals a “sweet-ass” car.  They soon rescue their former getaway driver, Hirsch (Alan Arkin) from a retirement home, and he immediately goes from breathing through an oxygen tank to whipping across the highway at 90+ miles-an-hour.  From here, I got the sense that there were some script revisions concerning how disparate and madcap each mini-adventure would be.  Perhaps Stevens realized he had Walken, Pacino, and Arkin in the same movie, and decided to do everything possible with them.  This leads us to some genre sampling, including Ferrell/Apatow-style screwball comedy (brothel humor, the inevitable old-man-on-Viagra joke, and a pup-tent erection); GoodFellas-era Scorsese black humor (a naked woman is found in the trunk of a stolen car and the gang must decide what to do with her), which leads to a bizarrely lighthearted and totally-played-for-laughs version of the infamous rape-and-revenge genre films (aforementioned woman reveals that she was kidnapped, sexually abused, and released by a gang, and the Stand Up Guys, being stand-up guys, beat the crap out of the gang and allow the woman to do what she will with them afterward); Tarantino-ish table chat scenes (which come off more as deliberate opportunities for these three veteran actors to be onscreen together and play off of each other for longer); and even Hong Kong action for a short time, in a finale that delivers not enough and possibly too much at the same time, but I leave that to you.

The supporting cast includes Vanessa Ferlito (!), who I haven’t seen since Death Proof, and whose effortless natural strength (not to mention her wonderful Italian attitude, a woman after my own heart) can steal any show, even when performing with these guys.  Julianna Margulies plays Nina, a doctor and the daughter of Hirsch, who gets a bit more screen time than most of the supporting women.  Lucy Punch, who also appeared in Grindhouse, plays Wendy, the proprietor of the brothel (previously owned by her mother, the former romantic partner of Val), and has a warm presence in the movie until a somewhat ludicrous scene involving Arkin’s character, which would be funny if not for how obligatory it seems – the “feeble old man happens to be a sex god” joke has worn out for me, sorry.  It’s old hat and reliably disrespectful to the women involved.

Perhaps most interesting among the supporting characters is Alex (Addison Timlin), a waitress who happens to be working at the diner (and busing the exact table at which the group sits) every time they come in over the course of nearly 24 hours.  She’s young, pretty, and loves chatting with Doc, who sits in her section every single morning.  She appears as a sort of mystical character, is always at the perfect calm, and is the only character who can draw out the softer details of Doc’s character, and thus convinces us to sympathize with him throughout (not that Walken’s acting doesn’t do a good enough job).  Her true identity is, like most things in this story, what you would expect, but the film’s adherence to structure is what keeps it from skirting farce (despite a Surprise Demise in the middle of the story and the aforementioned finale).

Al Pacino needs to choose his roles carefully now, and acting with Walken and Arkin again is a good one.  His voice is gravely and despondent.  He knows time is running out, and his more emotional scenes hit home, in spite of the fact that the “ticking timer” trope is shopworn and synthetic.  It means something to us only when it means something to the characters, and there’s a good sense of urgency here thanks to the secondary situation: not only does Val only have a few hours to live, but he and Doc only have a few hours to rekindle their friendship.  Walken, who had a good year in 2012, continues to play roles he’s comfortable in, but that don’t bring him into the territory of self-parody.

Throughout the story, characters reminisce for the sake of depth and exposition.  It’s worth noting that when the guys reminisce about their back-in-the-day criminal escapades, it’s nowhere near as interesting as when they (and other characters) reminisce about meaningful memories together.

A few bafflers: why/how does Claphands, a criminal mastermind with tons of money, keep his office in a building that looks condemned?  Why does he only seem to have two henchmen?  Why aren’t his henchmen imposing?  If he only has two non-imposing henchmen and his fortress is in the middle of the (nameless) city, why is Doc so petrified of him?  Why are the owners of the “sweet-ass” car, who are purportedly so tough and infamous that they don’t even lock their car because no one would be dumb enough to steal it, a bunch of wiry white dudes who end up easily pushed over?  Why is Alex trusting enough to go alone to a stranger’s apartment?  Again, it goes back to why most things in this movie happen: because it’s necessary to the film’s House of Cards plot, which would collapse should one detail be altered.  If you’re involved in the story and willing to go with it, none of this is very distracting.

The film’s title is one of those Road Sign Game opportunities.  Place punctuation, and the whole meaning changes, and you don’t feel bad about it because the words didn’t make much sense in the first place (remember “No, U turn”?).  Stand Up Guys doesn’t refer to the name of their gang; it’s a term referring to a responsible person, which Val claims to be, and which Doc certainly strives to be.  Do they succeed?  If you don’t think so, you can always call it Stand Up, Guys!  They do sit around a lot.

Stand Up GuysStand Up Guys (2013); written by Noah Haidle; directed by Fisher Stevens; starring Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Vanessa Ferlito.

  • Calendar

    • November 2019
      M T W T F S S
      « Mar    
       123
      45678910
      11121314151617
      18192021222324
      252627282930  
  • Search