Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Every time I'm about to watch anything even remotely connected to politics, finance, or science fiction, I'm overcome with a certain degree of panic and reflexive inclination to hate it, thanks to my chronic inability to comprehend the "technospeak" of those genres. So if it weren’t for the free tickets provided by the Singapore Film Society, I would have cowered from The Wolf of Wall Street. Adapted from a former stockbroker’s memoir of manipulating his way from middle-class to millionaire by scamming investors and laundering money, the film’s unavoidable inclusion of trading-floor jargon was almost too intimidating for the right-brained likes of me.

But as screenwriter Terence Winter put it in a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, “all you need to know is that if this thing goes up and explodes, it's bad." So, fellow econ dummies, have no fear if you can’t differentiate an IPO from a BLT. WOWS mercifully doesn't expect you to have even an elementary grasp on how stocks work, focusing more on the effects of illegally maneuvering the market rather than the mechanics of it.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in one of his most flamboyant roles to date) starts off as an honest enough man, aspiring—like any determined 20-something—to make it big in the world of finance, until his employer crumbles under 1987’s market crash. His insatiable hunger for wealth then leads him to take over a penny stock company and ultimately branch out into his own firm with a motley crew of thugs-turned-brokers, launching them on a crooked path to the most inconceivable riches using the most unauthorized tactics.  At Stratton Oakmont, fraud and deceit are the names of the game: a game Jordan and his minion-like staff plays so well that they overshoot the finish line and land in the underbelly of success.

What ensues is, for lack of a better word, crazy. From dwarf-tossing in the workplace to cocaine-snorting off strippers’ backsides, Martin Scorsese seems to have gone off the deep end in depicting Jordan’s and his associates’ total abandon of their consciences, perhaps in an attempt to mirror the characters' spirals into lives of excess. At points, I was laughing out of sheer incredulity at the ludicrousness on screen; for instance, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, a particular highlight of the film as Jordan’s crass and classless right-hand man) standing on a desk and urinating onto a subpoena, or the disproportionately lengthy sequence of Jordan, having gulped down a few too many Quaaludes, on his stomach and literally worming his way headfirst down a flight of stairs. At a mammoth 3 hours, with scenes that don’t know where to end, the movie spins into a long-winded, lecherous display of a world where laws are far from black & white, and those who live in it are ruthless in their single-minded pursuit of whatever their addictions may be—in this case, the treacherous trifecta of drugs, sex and money.

And yet, Jordan’s dramatic leap from upright employee to underhanded con artist is somewhat unconvincing. One minute he gets paranoid at the mere thought of a hit of crack, orders 7-Up at lunch, and is wide-eyed at the prospect of a six-figure commission. Not twenty seconds (of screen time) later, he's popping ludes like Tic Tacs, guzzling martinis by the hour, and snorting coke with his own 100 dollar bills.  It’s not so much a case of misrepresentation—many accounts of the finance world in the 1980s point to the complete plausibility of Jordan’s “hobbies”—but one would hope that more than a few of the film’s 180 minutes could be allotted to the inner psychological workings of his ethical erosion, to lend the film some dimension. Instead, the transition is reflected in one coked-up, boozed-up, f-bomb infested* spree of debauchery after another.

It would be one thing if the excess amounted to a unique lesson or came with an unexpected twist. But Belfort’s story, while entertaining in its outlandishness, has nothing groundbreaking to offer by way of either a distinctive lesson or, more importantly, an emotional connection. The incessant swearing quickly loses shock value; the drug trips all begin looking the same. More than once, I had to take a mental time-out from the events on screen to marvel silently at the fact that this film was in fact made by Scorsese. Despite his trademark epic runtime as well as signature uses of voiceover narration and frenetic camerawork, WOWS lacks the redeeming element of humanity that usually underlies the auteur’s characters, whether it's Goodfellas' Henry Hill or Raging Bull's Jake La Motta. It’s disappointing that a filmmaker of his caliber seemed to simply forget the editing stage for this project, letting his characters become caricatures and his plot become a parody. Granted, DiCaprio and Hill undoubtedly offer up unforgettably extravagant performances, but with so many unscrupulous personalities filling up the frame, it’s difficult to muster up a liking, sympathy, or even reluctant tolerance for any of them. The only thing left to feel is exhausted by it all.

The Wolf of Wall Street may be based on a true story, but it’s also an unnecessary exercise in imparting a message conveyed to us all too often by movies past: basically, greed, constant acquiescence to temptation, and cheating = bad ideas. I'd have put a spoiler alert before that sentence but let's face it, you can probably recognize the moral of the story about 15 seconds into the trailer. My two cents: spend 3 hours on something a bit less profane and a little more fulfilling than a movie that will take as long telling you to do just that.

*A record 506 times over the course of the movie. Apparently, there are people who count this stuff.

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