Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Why? 'Cuz It's the American Fuckin' Way, Ya Dumb Fuckin' Goy

 directed by Martin Scorsese
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill,
Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler

The Martin Scorsese of our current era — satiated by accomplishment, vindicated by long-overdue recognition — has lost the sense of alienation that allowed him to tap into the antisocial rage of a Travis Bickle or a Jake La Motta. Clearly, the former seminary student who burst out of NYU with a map of the Big Apple's back alleys and tenements, and a camera to match his jittery intensity, is long gone. The tortured Catholic who pondered the wages of sin in Mean Streets cashed it in ages ago. The gutter Expressionist who made Travis Bickle's cab a mobile confessional booth drifting wraith-like through the streets of Sodom died prior to Goodfellas. Today's Scorsese — the elder statesman who's risen in the wake of his younger self to collect an Oscar and shill for Apple and American Express — has made his peace with the whores, the skunk pussies, the buggers, the queens, the fairies, the dopers. Holding his hand to the flame of hellfire no longer causes him to recoil.

And he knows we're no different from him: we've always been a little wet between the legs for gangsters and bad boys.

It's why we admire the balls on a guy like Jordan Belfort, the Wall Street scam artist who started his own brokerage firm and made millions defrauding chumps like us before the Feds closed in and sent him to hobnob with Tommy Chong for twenty-two months of a four-year sentence. We listen to the stabs at contrition made by an older, supposedly wiser Belfort — "You make all this money but there's nothing attached to it," he says now — and we smile. We smile because we recognize the song-and-dance of a born bullshitter being trotted out for his media-mandated image rehab. We smile because we know that the faux-penitence that has the world believing that Jordan Belfort is a changed man is no different from the honey-throated con job that massaged $100 million dollars out of investors' pockets. We smile because we know that a criminal's essential nature is immutable, all-consuming and in constant need of nourishment; that, at heart, Jordan Belfort remains every ounce the bad-boy gangster of white-collar crime getting over on gullible WASP America while blowing nose candy up whores' pimply asses and rubber-legging on Quaaludes.

And we smile because Belfort's life trajectory from con man to con man now gets silver-screen immortalization with the twinkle-eyed insouciance of Leonardo DiCaprio to bring the macher from Queens to life. It's the ultimate in Hollywood flattery, of course, and it's exactly how we want our bloodletters and reprobates served up to us.

Appropriately, The Wolf of Wall Street, with its tits-and-debauchery update of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, is no more a Scorsese morality play than Casino's giddily-rendered nuts-and-bolts of how the Vegas Mob skimmed a fortune off the mortgage payments that Joe Q. Wonderbread dropped on blackjack. It's no more a cautionary tale than Goodfellas' two-and-a-half hours of Henry Hill on a keyed-up high of fuck-you-taxpaying-schnooks untouchability. It's tempting, naturally, to think that Scorsese's operating with some larger purpose in mind here — that the hand behind Taxi Driver and Raging Bull is now sculpting some grand statement for the ages out of Wolf's three hours of pill-popping and dwarf-tossing and workplace slut-banging and Swiss money-smuggling and gay butler-thrashing and goldfish-swallowing and lunatic comedy-of-excess that raw-dogs your brain's pleasure center into pure bathroom-skank bliss before pulling out and ejaculating liquid cocaine all over it. But he isn't.

There's no "larger point" to the hookers trotted out and conference room-fucked for our delight as DiCaprio's voice-over compares them, based on their level of attractiveness, to different types of stocks. There's no slow-burn satirical jab lurking behind Belfort's blasé acknowledgment of a former employee's suicide before leapfrogging onto another subject as if he'd just mentioned the weather. During the demented Jerry Lewis routine of Belfort struggling to maneuver himself into a car after 'ludes have turned his muscles to jelly — or during the slapstick that follows, as Belfort decimates everything in sight on his drive home, and wrestles with his equally-zonked right-hand man to get him off a phone line that he's just learned has a tap on it — there's not a single moment where we're allowed to do anything as destructive to the mood as pausing to ask, "What does this all add up to?"

This is Wall Street, after all: a bullshit factory where nothing is tangible, where numbers float through the air like dust mites; where "fortunes" are pulled from the ass of a given moment and sustained with nothing more than some missing scruples and a flair for seduction. As the senior broker played by Matthew McConaughey (in a gonzo, instantly-quotable cameo) tells the greenhorn Belfort: all they do is create the illusion of money for their clients and keep that illusion afloat — keep it from becoming something a client can close his hands around. A moment's pause, a second's worth of doubt, and reality turns it all back into dust. Scorsese bulldozed through the Mob narrative of Goodfellas with the bracing arrogance of a Gambino soldier out to break heads first and collect debts second; likewise, he orchestrates the drug rush of Wolf's Cecil B. DeMille circus for adults by adopting Belfort's reflection-is-the-enemy-of-success forward drive and stunted ethical growth as his own. The narrative takes the shape of whichever of Belfort's mindsets it's poured into: preening and cocksure when Belfort's tossing C-notes into his wastebasket and guiding us through his servant-filled mansion; giddy and lilting during Belfort's "honeymoon phase" with Naomi, the stunning shiksa peach he plucks from another man's tree and ditches his wife for; slower-paced and absent Scorsese's fondness for wall-to-wall music — numbed by its own length, really — as a sober Belfort sags under the weight of FBI aggression and faces the idea of having to walk away from his crooked empire.

Is The Wolf of Wall Street a great film then? Rapper MC Lyte once commented about an album of hers, "I have no messages because I've learned that sometimes people don't take too kindly to rappers preaching to them. So I gave people what they want: fat-ass beats, fat-ass lyrics, and no substance at all." MC Marty Mart would now appear to be on the same page as the former Lana Moorer, having increasingly — in the years since Goodfellas — capitulated in that eternal trade-off between the long-lasting richness of art and the fast-food approbation of commerce.

It's not that he's suddenly churning out pablum with "no substance." But the progression from Casino to The Departed to Wolf has seen him crafting triumphs of scope rather than depth — thinning out his examinations of the roots and the social impact of criminality for the sake of an all-too-comfortable formula: that staccato-toned, rat-a-tat-rhythmed, coke-rush journey through the easy money, easy women and predestined marriage meltdowns of whatever real-life crime figures he's using as a conduit for his lapsed Catholic's infatuation with the Devil. It's a journey that announces itself as A Martin Scorsese Picture™ from its first Stones-colliding-into-Muddy-Waters-scored frame; in its every alpha male-worshiping explosion of lovingly detailed violence in lieu of the vivisection of tortured psyches at which his earlier films proved so adept. It's a formula Scorsese rationalizes away in interviews with lofty-sounding, chronicler-of-the-human-condition platitudes that state, "These men are only human; we're all human. Who knows what you or I would have done if we'd been in their shoes?"

Yet, it wasn't hard times that caused Scorsese's Henry Hill to take a job at a Mob-run cabstand, setting rival taxi operations ablaze and unloading hijacked cigarettes. It wasn't a need for survival that led his Ace Rothstein to illegally skim casino profits for the benefit of Kansas City wiseguys. Nor was it a lack of options in life that set his Nicky Santoro on the path to jewel heists, ink-pen stabbings and eyeball-poppings via vise grip. What the men in Scorsese's fantasias of bad-ass gangsterism do requires the overriding by naked greed of all sense of ethics, of any fealty to notions of family or God or community. It requires a very specific, very conscious choice — a choice your average Joe on the block is neither morally nor psychologically capable of making, no matter how strong his disdain for a society that expects him to wait in line at the bakery and work shitty jobs for bum paychecks. 

Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull knew their protagonists were perpetual dwellers on the fringes of everyday life; Scorsese bridged the gap between them and us with a direct line inside his characters' heads — via voice-overs, via their journal entries and conversations with themselves, via an aesthetic that let us process the world around them from their highly charged, almost druggy perspectives. Now, though, Scorsese makes his films from the spectators' bench. Vis-à-vis his oft-stated assumption of universality, Scorsese's crime epics suggest that a will to brutality and a thirst for material comforts at any cost are so intrinsic to the American character that little why is needed behind their breakneck documenting of the what, the how and the when.

Not even the how of it all is allowed to penetrate Wolf's framework. Hoping for a detailed Casino-esque breakdown of the steps by which Belfort profited from peddling worthless penny stocks to John Q. Workingstiff? Twice in Wolf, DiCaprio pauses on the cusp of an explanation only to flash us his I-just-fucked-your-girlfriend smirk and tell us that the nuts and bolts don't matter. Fond of the way that Goodfellas tarnished the charisma of its wiseguys with spur-of-the-moment whackings and corpses stumbled upon by kids? No such perspective here. Beyond the implications of a rather cannily staged shot in which Belfort's flipping-off of some unsuspecting sap appears to be directed at us, Belfort's crimes are presented as virtually victimless. In declining to delve too deeply into Belfort's financial schemes, Scorsese leaves the victims out of the equation altogether — depriving us of the chance to see some of Belfort's faceless "schmucks" humanized, and keeping our heady buzz safe from consideration of the shattered dreams and piss-soaked futures that Belfort and his merry band of kosher fraudmeisters left in their wake.

Other than, say, a throwaway reference to schvartzes or a few riffs on the Jonah Hill character's attempts to pass as WASP, Scorsese tamps down the Jewishness of his antiheroes into a sort of culturally unspecific white-guys-on-Wall-Street mush. Yet, Belfort himself — in the memoir that served as Wolf's inspiration — draws consistent parallels between his primordial thirst for greenbacks and the self-cultivated pariah status that's so endemic to Jewish identity. Belfort refers to the real-life version of Hill's character as "a Jew of the ultrasavage variety." He repeatedly — almost ritualistically — imputes savagery as a basic characteristic to any member of the Tribe, and he describes the swindlers working for his WASPily-named Stratton Oakmont firm as hailing from "upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos." Furthermore, Belfort illuminates his own paranoia and obsession with the Blue-Eyed Other in passages such as this:
"The Gold Coast is a terrific place to live, especially if you like blue-blooded WASPs and overpriced horses. Personally, I despise both, but somehow I ended up owning a bunch of overpriced horses and socializing with a bunch of blue-blooded WASPs, the latter of whom, I figured, viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction."
Obviously, though, Scorsese doesn't want to offend or incur the usual howls from the "anti-Semite!" brigade — which is the clearest indication one could have that Marty the Oscar-winner prioritizes his reserved seat at industry circle jerks over the truth-seeking of the genuine artist. It's odd, though, coming from a director who's thrust his own Italian-American identity under the harsh light of scrutiny time and again. Mean Streets and Goodfellas showed us how the clannishness of his old neighborhood helped the criminality of the Mob to flourish — i.e. everyone looked the other way, everyone kept their mouths shut, everyone helped themselves to "discounted" booze and cigarettes while knowing damn well where it all came from. A similar approach to Wolf might have dug a scalpel into Jewish us-against-them-ness and the ways in which it nourishes the misdeeds of a Bernie Madoff, a Michael Milken, an Ivan Boesky, a Solomon Dwek, a Marc Dreier, a Sholam Weiss. It might have delved into the self-justification of a Jordan Belfort — a curious mindset that says it's alright to bilk the goyim since they've been shutting Jews out of their country clubs since the dawn of time; and that behind the blue eyes of every all-American on the other end of that sales pitch lurks a seething Nazi who can't wait to kick kikes back into ovens.

Wolf's coda shows us Belfort, fresh out of prison, in his new guise as motivational speaker. His audience watches him as one, hanging on his every word, practically pushing forward just to lap up whatever drops of wisdom fall from his lips. Scorsese holds on the audience long enough to make it clear that he's putting up a mirror to us.

And he's right, isn't he? There's no sexier bit of fap fodder to us here in bad-economy, baby boomer-fucked Obamerica than a guy who games the system, scoops up all the trophy snatch he can manage, and amasses a fortune with middle fingers raised to the heavens. It's water-cooler Viagra for office humps gone limp under the strain of paying taxes and knowing right from wrong — no matter that the final chapters of such dashing rulebreakers are punctuated with the clang of prison bars; no matter that what a gonif like Belfort is selling is the lie that his cutthroat quest for shekels is the essence of life itself, that it's the Great American Way, a reflection of who we truly are, as a nation and as a people.

As a broker explains to Belfort in the film, "It's mostly schmucks who buy this stuff."

©2014 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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