Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013/US)


Julien Faddoul

*** (3 stars)

d – Martin Scorsese
w – Terence Winter   (Based on the Book by Jordan Belfort)
ph – Rodrigo Prieto
pd – Bob Shaw
ed – Thelma Schoonmaker
cos – Sandy Powell

p – Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Čas, P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, Barry Rothbart, Jake Hoffman, Mackenzie Meehan, Spike Jonze

In Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), the director plays an ingenious slight-of-hand trick of the mind, using 146 minutes of cinema to simulate the process of a bullet ejecting from a gun. As the picture progresses, the faster and more haphazard it becomes, with Scorsese leaving out more and more information, culminating in Henry Hill’s famous “last day” sequence and concluding the film with a gun being fired directly to the audience.

In his latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, he pulls-off something similar. The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3-hour long sales pitch that uses pure cinema to replicate the relationship and exchange one goes through with a stockbroker.  The movie begins with kindness and enticement, which turns scrumptious and exhilarating, and finally moves on to become all-out abusive and downright repulsive. It is a movie lit and shot so lethargically and cut so randomly (especially coming from a director of such esteem) that one, at first or even second glance, might not realize what is actually being done to them: This is a 179 minute get-rich-quick seminar.

The film is based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort and chronicles his rise and fall through securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street and Long Island with his company Stratton Oakmont Inc. Belfort narrates (or sells, rather) the film event by event as they occur, sometimes addressing the audience directly. The opening of the film is quite strange, with the tag of the Stratton Oakmont logo followed by an advertisement. This opening places us off-balance immediately.

Jordan then introduces himself and takes us back to when he was a newly married, 22-year-old “Connector” for a Wall Street firm in order to complete his Series 7. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan in what is hands-down the best performance of his career and one of the many, many, many remarkable things he does is to still be consummately believable as a 22-year-old.

He befriends his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who coaches him on the lifestyle required for such a job, which includes a rotation of martinis, a heavy dose of cocaine and at least 2 orgasms a day. This is the film’s key scene, which Scorsese shoots so matter-of-factly that we constantly ask ourselves why. In doing this, it permeates the rest of the film because all the enticing hedonism that we hear and all the queasy dread that we feel will come to fruition.

Unfortunately for Jordan, his first day as a broker just happens to be 19th October, 1987, otherwise known as Black Monday, when the stock dropped 508 points, the biggest fall since 1929. But after doing miraculously well with some penny stocks, he initiates Stratton Oakmont with fellow conspirator and drug addict Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and dumps his wife for a “better” one (Margot Robbie).

Scorsese and longtime editor and collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker give us all this information in such an uncoordinated manner that is a little more than disturbing. Aspect ratios consistently swap, shot reverses don’t match and at times even the sound mix doesn’t sync. It is as if the cinematic elements of the film have declared war on each other and that the film itself is falling apart due to its makers’ lack of modulation. I could be accused of giving Scorsese the benefit of the doubt here, but if I am it isn’t because I want to go down with the ship. But because this is what I believe this film, which I have now seen three times, is about.

Scenes constantly play for twice as long as one expects with the ensemble clearly improvising much of the dialogue. Scorsese keeps these scenes long for thematic effect: we gasp at the beginning of the scene due to the shock of what is being discussed, the longer the scene goes the more we begin to laugh, and finally, by the time any of these conversations finally reach their end, we are not laughing at all. We feel upset and unhinged at/for these people who are not addicted to being rich, but to wanting to be rich. Writer Terence Winter’s gives DiCaprio several unceasing Patton-like monologues where Jordan rallies his troops before battle begins. The ensemble cast itself is vast and varied, with every actor beautifully committing to the craziness.

This is the difference between discovery and understanding. Discovery is an exciting feeling; understanding is a bitter one - at least when first experiencing it. This is not dissimilar to two previous Scorsese films, The King of Comedy (1983) and After Hours (1984) – both masterpieces. The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is the funniest film Scorsese has ever made. A sequence in particular involving Jordan and Donnie’s addiction to Lemon Quaaludes (that brazenly shows-off both DiCaprio’s capability and Scorsese’s love of Jerry Lewis) will stand the test of cinematic time.

Almost six years after a horrific economic collapse in 2008 caused by massive fraud, almost all the financial executives responsible have walked away with their personal fortunes intact. None of the debaucherous, disgusting situations depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street are as infuriating as that simple fact. And as the film concludes (with a similar outcome), Scorsese produces a final shot that explains why. Scorsese shows us, essentially, a mirror image and after the glee this 3-hour sales pitch has given us, we are left with nothing but the bitter truth. It is the other side of the Goodfellas coin.

No American filmmaker has devoted so much of his oeuvre to dissecting the American way-of-life more than Martin Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of an intoxicated American seen through the eyes of a sober one. As a movie, I must agree that there are some mishandled moments and some indifferently executed compositions from an artist as inspired as Scorsese. But as a piece of cinema, I think it is a magnificent achievement.

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