Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Cinema File #300: "The Wolf Of Wall Street" Review

That's it, I'm done.

I am officially sick and tired of being sick and tired of hating movies that I would otherwise love if not for their unbearable length. Blue Is the Warmest Color was one thing, I mean it was a French movie after all, most of that was on me. This is something else entirely. I wanted to love The Wolf of Wall Street, I really did. His recent Leonardo DiCaprio fetish notwithstanding, Martin Scorsese is still unequivocally one of the best directors working today and his latest film promised to be a much needed satirical catharsis surrounding the profligacy of Wall Street that led to our most recent economic downturn. It is very much that and generally entertaining up to a point, but like most movies of more reasonable length, that point comes at about the 90 min. mark, and then the movie goes on, and on, and on.

Jordon Belfort, our titular wolf, is as greedy and as decadent as they come, a 90's era Gordon Gekko revolutionizing the art of ripping people off through the complicated world of stock fraud, so byzantine a system that he rightly assumes you won't even be able to understand why what he's doing is even illegal. Breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience with a charmingly confident swagger, he pulls you into his world of unrestrained hedonism and graft and takes for granted the notion that you might not find his debaucherous exploits completely amusing and forgivable, downing drugs and banging prostitutes with reckless abandon and recounting his "success" without guilt or introspection. One assumes the rest of the movie was meant to pick up the slack in terms of actually casting the appropriate judgement upon him, but maybe they just ran out of time. Oh, wait.

The Wolf Of Wall Street, from what I understand, wants to be a movie about what currently ails us, about the many Jordon Belfort's still working today who have gamed the system to inoculate themselves from his ultimate fate. And maybe it started out like that, but somewhere along the way, much like DiCaprio's last turn as a charismatic criminal in The Great Gatsby, it feels like everyone involved with telling this story got a little too invested in the glitz and glamour and forgot the part where these are supposed to be the bad guys we're focused on. Supposedly a screening of the film near the Goldman Sachs building, and thus filled with members of the financial industry, was said to be replete with cheers at all the wrong moments, as if they somehow missed the point, but I would submit that maybe it was the movie that missed its own point.

Yeah, I get it, he's a creep and gets away with it, and I'm supposed to translate that injustice to all the other creeps who got away with crashing our economy in the Bush years, but I can't help but think this take away might have gone down a bit smoother without the entire movie trying so hard to make me identify with the guy for how lovable he is while being such a creep. I'm not saying I need to be spoon fed my moral outrage, but there's a line between satirizing and glorifying that The Wolf Of Wall Street can't help but cross over its insanely unnecessary running time as the fun consequence free side of excess is depicted over and over again, with every attempt made to shape the world around Belfort to justify his actions. His point of view is skewed, naturally, but its too central to the storytelling, and the lack of focus on the actual victims of his crimes and just why what he did was so wrong makes the whole thing come across less like an indictment and more like one of his own sales pitches.

Which isn't to say that there isn't a movie in here somewhere to love. In a way it feels a bit like Saving Mr. Banks in its own attempt to couch Walt Disney's arrogant strong arming of a writer's integrity into a noble effort to tame an insufferable shrew. It's a bad thing the movie's doing, turning morally reprehensible characters into rakish heroes, but its done so well that you almost want to forgive it. Jordon Belfort is basically Alec Baldwin's character from Glengarry Glenross if you made an entire movie about him leaving the real estate game for an easier and bigger score, and frankly, who doesn't want to see that movie? You may not have wanted to see three hours of it reiterating the same point of his jackassery many more times than you ever needed, but there's no denying how much fun it is to watch before it gets old. But oh boy does it get old, and by the fifth or sixth Mamet-esque speech he gives to his testosterone fueled staff, don't be surprised if you find yourself with whiplash, hating a guy you were just loving for all the wrong reasons.

Because its Scorsese, I'm tempted to think that maybe that was the point after all, and that maybe he's just that much more clever than I am. I want to believe that when the movie so forcefully wears out its welcome and runs its protagonist's charm into the ground, that maybe its just a round about way of doing what I wanted to see done more explicitly and directly. I want to believe that maybe the three hours of increasingly gratuitous luxury-porn is some deep and biting structural metaphor in itself, encouraging the audience to literally engage in Belfort's "More Is Always Better" philosophy so that they too might overdose and be forced to reflect on just what it is they were having so much fun with. I want to believe all of this, and of course I know just in general that he's almost certainly more clever than I am, but in the end, I'm only left wishing that Marty had shown just an ounce of the restraint that his main character should have had.
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