Sunday 2 March 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

A habit of mine, gained from growing up an avid video game fan, has been to ignore the word "controversy", which I did with the controversy revolving around The Wolf of Wall Street. For those somehow unaware: many worriers, or possibly even well-informed members of society, came out of Wolf horrified, believing that without properly sign posting the fast life the movie so enthusiastically rampages on screen as "bad" or "immoral" it is clearly corrupting our youth.

As I've said, I ignored this argument before watching the movie, and even through its first half, until a scene where dancers and strippers and even a marching band are paraded through the offices of corrupt wall street company Stratton Oakmont. A friend I was watching with, who had seen the movie before and advertised to me and others as "one of the best film's I've ever seen", and who very clearly falls into the "mainstream" demographic the worriers are probably most worried about, turned to me and said "wouldn't it be great to work there" (to which I didn't answer).

To anyone who doesn't already know the plot (and I do realize I'm running this review a little late): the story, based on real events, follows what works out around a decade in the life of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio - once again showing he's best at playing bastards), following Belfort's life from his arrival at Wall Street as a fresh faced, married and apparently only modestly ambitious assistant to Matthew McConaughey; going through his illegal activities as the boss of Stratton Oakmont - who scammed their customers out of millions in the 90s - which lead to his excessive lifestyle, and an ending which links to the real life Belfort who's currently working as a motivational speaker (not to mention living off the millions he got for selling his memoirs to Scorsese and Co.). 

I won't deny Scorsese makes the fast life look good, and very fast too: his camera swooping in and around the crowds at Oakmont, making sure never to stop. It's Scorsese's longest picture yet, three hours in total, and it's a rolling 180 minutes. I couldn't really give it more praise than saying it's as slick and passionate as anything Scorsese's ever done. The casting is brilliant, mainly because as we're supposed to be unsure if these characters are everymen giving into human lust or bastards doing what they've always wanted, the casting is mostly people it's always hard to lock down. Take Jonah Hill, who's spent the last few years splitting time between oscar-nominated drama and all out comedy, or Jon Favreau, who's spent more time recently directing than acting, or Jean Dujardin who's still making the transition over from French cinema. The cast is as colourful as everything else in this movie. 

Obviously Wolf isn't the first film to show the fast life, and neither is it the first Scorsese film to run into controversy: Goodfellas (which Wolf most closely resembles), Casino, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull etc all ruffed people up the wrong way too, although that was almost entirely for these film's excessive use of the red stuff (at least at the time of making) and very little to do with the morales involved. Wolf isn't nearly as violent as any of these films, it's vulgarities almost entirely sex and drugs, and it's not the first time a Scorsese film has shown its main man getting himself out of trouble. So the big question is obviously, what makes Wolf so much worse that anything else Scorsese's ever made? 

The answer is pretty clear when you compare Wolf to Goodfellas. Both start half way through things, showing Hill/Belfort on top of their respective worlds, although both with a hint (a knocking sound from the car boot, a near-helicopter crash) to how it's all going to come crashing down. After this both take us back to the start, with both sharing many stylistic flourishes: the heavy use of narration, elongated freeze frames, and DiCaprio/Liotta turning to the screen to address the audience. Yet it's the differences that are important here: after the openings both movies take us back to the start, for Goodfellas this all the way back to Henry Hill as a kid, idolizing the gangsters in his neighborhood, even taking the belt for the life of debauchery he's about to have. In Wolf we're only taken back to Belfort's arrival on Wall Street. He arrives very literally a blue collar everyman. He's shy on his first day on the job, isn't well experienced with drugs, and seems a well intentioned man trying to provide for his wife, who screams at him how he's changed, and is quickly forgotten about when the supermodel blondes start showing up. The interest in Henry Hill, even though advertised to us as a true story, has always been slightly fantastical, his neighborhood and upbringing and the time period things were set all playing a part in the life he lived, whereas Belfort's life is a life born purely of choice, which the film says we all could have had given the right time and place. That's what's got everyone so riled up, and it's why my friend had stars in his eyes for Belfort's story: because what might possibly be Scorsese's most despicable character starts off as his most ordinary everyman.

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