Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Boys will be boys -- on Wall Street, too

Scorsese and DiCaprio whip up excitement, but where's the depth?
If director as talented as Martin Scorsese tackles the subject of Wall Street greed, it's probably appropriate for us to expect a little greatness, a movie that puts its finger on the pulse of something deep and important in the American moment. We want (or at least I want) a movie that scores a thematic bullseye.

That's not what we get with The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese's hopped-up look at the wheeling-dealing world of corrupt brokers whose piles of money grew tall, but whose ambitions remained distressingly shallow.

Don't get me wrong: The Wolf of Wall Street -- which is based on a true story -- can be wildly, even rudely, entertaining. In one surprisingly funny scene, Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio -- as swindler Jordan Belfort -- demonstrate an unexpected facility for slapstick: Belfort tries to function after Quaaludes have brought him to a state of near-paralysis.

Beyond such antic moments, Wolf of Wall Street brims with the kind of whirling energy that reflects the unbridled hedonism of its central character and his gang of eager cohorts.

Working from a script by Terrence Winter, Scorsese uses his considerable powers to immerse us in a gleefully amoral world of drugs, cocaine, sex and wanton spending. It's the 1990s, and money and libido rule.

Judging by the movie, Belfort's greatest (and perhaps only) insight may have been his realization that it's more lucrative to swindle the wealthy than to mess with working stiffs. He elevated his game from a low-rent clientele to the upper reaches of society. He called his company Stratton Oakmont.

Belfort and his unscrupulous cronies got rich by driving up the price of obscure penny stocks. They unloaded shares they controlled at the high point, forcing those same stocks to tank. They reaped obscene profits; unwary customers were hit with big losses.

In a performance that must have required every ounce of energy he possesses, DiCaprio turns Belfort into a cheerleader for self-interest. In a series of fervent speeches to the brokers who work for him, he creates a frenzied atmosphere. He feeds their appetites with encouragement, motivational blather and occasional visits from hookers.

Less a carefully shaped drama than a feverish accumulation of comedy and excess, Wolf of Wall Street begins when a naive Belfort learns the ways of Wall Street from a seasoned broker (Matthew McConaughey), a guy who might be an older version of what Belfort's destined to become.

The ethos espoused by McConaughey's character is as simple as it is jaded: The point of working on Wall Street isn't to make money for clients, it's to make money for oneself. This means snaring customers in a trap in which irresistible promises blur all reason. One stock sale is supposed to lead to another.

Although the firm he initially works for goes belly up after the Black Monday collapse of 1987, Belfort finds his way to a boiler-room brokerage operation on Long Island. There, he learns that he had an uncommon gift for selling penny stocks.

Belfort brings what he learned about big-time Wall Street hustling to a disreputable portion of the market. He eventually strikes out on his own, establishing his first operation in a converted garage.

He does this with help: Sporting a set of false teeth that transform his face, Jonah Hill gives what might be a career-changing performance as Donnie Azoff, Belfort's partner in dissipation and crime.

Azoff sometimes plays bad cop for Belfort. At one point, he swallows an employee's live goldfish: The poor sap has had the audacity to clean the fish's bowl while the staff is supposed to be preparing to take a hot new company -- fashionable Steve Madden Shoes -- public.

Hill makes Azoff crassly funny in ways that would be repulsive if it weren't for his apparently boundless lack of self-consciousness.

As is usually the case with Scorsese movies, milieu dominates. Wolf of Wall Street is not populated by MBA-wielding sharks; it's full of lower middle-class guys, strivers from New York's outer boroughs trying to strike it rich.

I wish Scorsese had done more to emphasize this Wall Street class gap: It might have helped more fully to explain Belfort's motivations and to give events in the movie some useful context.

Belfort sees his ascendance as an expression of his right to maximize opportunity. He talks about money as if were a territory, a land to be conquered and claimed. Those too timid for the task will be left behind, assigned to lives dominated by Ford Pintos and wives growing wide in the bottom. Belford made sleaziness seem heroic.

Scorsese makes sure that debauchery arrives in epic proportions, reaching its height (no pun intended) on an orgiastic airplane flight from New York to Las Vegas.

Scorsese's supporting cast is mostly dwarfed by DiCaprio and Hill. Australian actress Margot Robbie impresses as Naomi Lapaglia, the blonde model for whom Belfort dumps his first wife (Cristin Meloiti).

You'll find cameos from a group as diverse as director Spike Jonze (as a boiler room broker) and author Fran Leibowitz (as a judge).

Rob Reiner has a nice turn as Belford's hot-tempered father. Jon Favreau portrays a lawyer. Former New York cop Bo Dietl appears as himself. Jean Dujardin, familiar from The Artist, plays a Swiss banker who's knowledgeable when it comes to money laundering.

Some scenes are first rate, notably a confrontation between Belfort and a canny FBI agent (Kyle Chandler). The scene takes place on Belfort's yacht and leaves little doubt that Chandler's character can't be seduced or bought, two of Belfort's specialities.

Is the movie watchable? You bet.

But like nagging second thoughts after you've made a big purchase, questions ultimately arise. How much sex and drug-taking do we need to see before we get the point? Does Winter's script -- evidently embellished by a fair amount of improvisation from the actors -- ever get around to expressing a viewpoint about's taking place? Has Scorsese given his raving romp any real depth? Does he ever get beneath the movie's libidinous surfaces?

I think you already know how I'd answer those questions.

At three hours in length, Scorsese's wild opus is never boring, but it seems to have been made with the same kind of irrepressible smile you might see on faces at a reunion of aging, former frat brothers, all of them sitting around a bar, happily and a little too eagerly recalling the shameless excesses of yesteryear.

And one more thing: Let's say we're meant to be appalled by the cartoonish carnality of Belfort and his wild-living bunch. Would it have been better if they had used their ill-gotten gains to buy critically acclaimed art work? Should they have been more community minded and given money to charities or endowed a chair at a major university?

What are we supposed to see as their worst crime, that they may have ruined a lot of lives or that they had hopelessly boorish tastes?

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