Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street: A howling disappointment

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive profanity and drug use, and some violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.31.13

Boobs, blow and bad language.

That’s my takeaway, from the 180 minutes I wasted — nay, endured — while watching The Wolf of Wall Street.

This is where Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) feels the most comfortable, and the
most powerful: at the microphone in front of his troops at Stratton Oakmont, preparing
to deliver another do-or-die speech designed to encourage everybody to hit the
phones and fleece ever more working-class suckers out of their hard-earned savings.
Root-canal surgery would have been less painful.

Director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio have made beautiful music on numerous occasions, but this symphony of wretched excess plays more like a botched rehearsal.

There isn’t more than 20 minutes’ worth of actual narrative in Terence Winter’s sloppy excuse for a screenplay. Indeed, this plays like the parody sketch Saturday Night Live might have made of a much better movie ... or, perhaps, the Mad Magazine take on far superior material.

Great, expansive chunks of this bewildering project could have come from the improvisational, goof-laden antics of a Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow farce. Pointless exchanges of inane, profanity-laden, frat boy “dialogue” go on and on and on and on. Our stars seem to make stuff up from one scene to the next, pretending that frenzied hysteria is some reasonable substitute for actual acting, with Scorsese apparently content to let the camera roll.

That sort of babbling slapstick nonsense wears thin very quickly ... and yet it continues for what seems an eternity.

I want those three hours of my life back.

Winter’s script is adapted from Jordan Belfort’s 2007 “memoir” of the same title, a book that can be called laughably unreliable at best, perniciously self-aggrandizing at worst. Belfort was yet another opportunistic Wall Street swindler who made the most of the high-flying 1990s, largely by defrauding investors with penny stocks via the “prestigious” brokerage firm front of Stratton Oakmont.

He was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering in 1998, investors having lost somewhere north of $200 million. Belfort served just shy of two years in federal prison, then re-invented himself as a “motivational speaker” and wrote the aforementioned book — and a sequel, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street — mostly to revel in the notoriously bad behavior he and his colleagues enjoyed while fleecing the unwary.

Actually, he’s the perfect egotistical show-off for the share-all Facebook generation.

A much more recent federal complaint, filed only a few months ago, accuses Belfort of failing to honor the 2003 sentencing agreement he made, promising to pay $110.4 million in restitution to 1,513 former clients. Belfort has earned a reasonable chunk of change during the past decade, from his two books and motivational talks, not to mention what he was paid for this big-screen celebration of his execrable life.

In a development that I’m sure will surprise nobody, he seems unwilling to give 50 percent, as ordered, to his victims. Like anybody would expect otherwise, from a career con artist?

OK, fine; it’s certainly possible to make a free-wheeling dark comedy from such material, while simultaneously wagging a censorious finger at the core perpetrators. We need look no further than this past spring’s Pain & Gain, not to mention the much more recent American Hustle. The latter even operates within a similar financial sphere, but with a difference: We enjoy spending time with the characters in American Hustle, while every moment wasted with DiCaprio’s Belfort and his dimwit, morally vacuous colleagues is sheer torture.

The major problem is the smug, contemptuous tone that Scorsese injects from the very first scene, as DiCaprio’s Belfort breaks the fourth wall in order to address us directly, boasting about his lavish lifestyle, his sexpot trophy wife (Margot Robbie, as Naomi) and the prodigious daily cocktail of drugs — most particularly cocaine and Quaaludes — consumed to keep his internal fires stoked.

To say nothing of the after-hours call girls and working-hours hookers who dance through this saga like exuberant, bare-breasted beach bunnies. Rarely has onscreen sex been so tedious, or titillation so pointless.

We catch Jordan at his peak, during these introductory scenes; Scorsese and Winter then roll back the clock a few years, to pay brief lip service to how a seemingly honest and wholesome young guy gets corrupted by proximity to mountains of cash. Jordan signs on as a cold-caller at a brokerage firm — L.F. Rothschild, according to Belfort’s book — where Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) is the alpha dog.

Jordan’s initial greeting, however, comes from a mid-level boss who regards this newbie coldly and says, “You’re lower than pond scum.” Truer words never were spoken, and the same sentiment could be applied to this entire film.

Well, maybe not quite all of it. The best scene comes shortly thereafter, when Hanna takes Jordan to lunch and shares his perceived wisdom of Wall Street; it’s an absolutely mesmerizing Obi-wan Kenobi/Luke Skywalker moment. McConaughey’s short speech is as electrifying — as absolutely, memorably thrilling — as the “You’re all fired” pep talk Alec Baldwin gives at the beginning of 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, or Ned Beatty’s “primal forces of nature” rant in 1976’s Network.

We marvel at the intensity of McConaughey’s performance ... and immediately lament its passing, since this is the last time we see him. And, subsequently, Scorsese’s film slides into the cesspool of Belfort’s gleeful personal myth-making.

Belfort loses this job when L.F. Rothschild goes belly-up during the “Black Monday” stock market crash on Oct. 19, 1987; he subsequently joins a struggling strip-mall firm that deals in penny stocks, and quickly becomes its star pupil. Before long, he’s enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle that gets more outrageous by the day.

As the “story” progresses, Belfort never misses an opportunity to promote himself — often via the ongoing voice-overs — as the smartest person in the room. No argument there, but that’s only because he surrounds himself with blithering idiots who kiss his shoes because, well, he makes them a lot of money.

First among these dim bulbs is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a neighbor elevated by chance encounter to best friend, acolyte and drug mule. (Belfort gets to keep his actual name in this film; Azoff clearly stands in for Danny Porush, who also went to prison when Stratton Oakmont imploded. Porush reportedly threatened to sue if his actual name were used in this film.)

Hill plays Azoff as a dweeb in whose brain an original thought would die of loneliness. Mostly, though, Hill’s performance echoes the one-dimensional, arrested adolescent horndogs he played in the likes of Superbad and Get Him to the Greek, which thoroughly tarnishes the far superior work he did in Moneyball. The exchanges of inane dialogue between Hill and DiCaprio are jaw-droppingly stupid and almost always pointless: utter nonsense typified by (as just one example) Jordan’s vulgar questions about Donnie’s marriage to his first cousin.

Several lesser supporting characters are a great deal more captivating, and played by actors who bring far more presence to the table. Jean Dujardin is marvelous as Swiss banker Jean-Jacques Saurel, hiding his contempt for vulgar Americans behind an ingratiating megawatt smile. Joanna Lumley is divine as Naomi’s mischievously charming Aunt Emma, whose “1960s youth” grants an amused indulgence of Jordan’s bad behavior.

The best late-entry work comes from Kyle Chandler, appropriately spit-and-polish as Patrick Denham, the FBI agent who will orchestrate Belfort’s collapse. This is the guy to root for, and Chandler’s best scene comes during Belfort’s quite clumsy effort to seduce (i.e. bribe) Denham into looking the other way.

Although blandly playing along — to a point — the twinkle in Chandler’s eye betrays Denham’s itchy desire to punch this puffed-up snot right in the kisser ... but no, this take-down will need to be done properly, and Denham knows it. It’s another of this film’s rare but undeniably terrific scenes.

Too bad there aren’t many more like them.

In a broad sense, this saga certainly fits Scorsese’s primary oeuvre, focused as he often is on the larcenous behavior of morally challenged protagonists who remain oblivious to the collateral damage suffered by ordinary folks. The key difference is that, in this case, these aren’t interesting people. Belfort and his cronies have no more depth than a dog in heat, and their incessantly awful behavior — and their environment of wretched excess — hardly counts as characterization.

Dark, dark comedy is a tightrope walk: One false step, and you lose everything. I’ve no doubt some people will find this film hilarious from start to finish, chuckling at the overblown absurdity of it all. I still vividly recall laughing throughout 1994’s Pulp Fiction, while gentler folks in the surrounding theater seats looked at me in utter horror: How could I possibly be finding humor in such vicious, violently depraved material?

So, yes, I get it: Scorsese’s approach is dazzling, even intoxicating. But it’s also superficial, which is death for a three-hour movie. And while “superficial” might perfectly define the soulless hedonism of the empire Belfort briefly built, that’s a pretty thin symbolic hook on which to hang so much bloated laundry.

The most irritating element of this film, however, is its refusal to acknowledge that Jordan Belfort was — and is — a real person who caused considerable harm to many, many victims. There’s no “suggested by actual events” crawl at the beginning, no explanation of Belfort’s eventual fate, aside from a brief glimpse of him re-inventing himself as a motivational speaker. And certainly no indication that he regrets any of the actions that sent him to prison.

Indeed, mainstream viewers unaware of Belfort’s history likely will regard Scorsese’s movie as a wholly fictitious lark: one that celebrates its protagonist as much as he celebrates himself. And that, frankly, is as grave a crime as what Belfort did to all those naïve enough to have invested in Stratton Oakmont.

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