Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"Wolf" barks, seldom bites

By Steve Evans

Finally finished viewing Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" over three evenings separated by three weeks. My reaction is complex and not a little confused. I salute a 70-year-old director for producing a stylish and rambunctious motion picture that sustains the most unchecked debauchery (three relentless hours of it) that I can recall in a movie, yet tells the story in such farcical terms that I cannot decide whether to be offended or laugh, or more likely, both. Hence, my ambivalent reaction to the film. Maybe the only way to present such repellent material is to treat it as comedy so it becomes more accessible to a mass audience that can buy sufficient tickets for a $100 million film to become profitable (it did). Or maybe I am just old-fashioned. Maybe my conscience influences my thoughts about situations I find offensive yet are beyond my control. Perhaps I am more conventional than I once believed. Or more anarchic than I could ever have imagined.

"Wolf" traces the true story of Jordan Belfort, a charismatic penny-stock broker whose taste for wealth, women and drugs seems obvious after the first three minutes of the film, then continues for hours. His appetites accelerate in ways that only a film with a hard-R rating can explore. Belfort ultimately got busted, ending up serving a couple years in a federal prison for fraud and securities-exchange violations. He avoided a 20-year sentence by ratting out his accomplices. Today he is a motivational speaker.

Less than 30 seconds of research on the web reveals he was paid $1 million by the producers of this film for the rights to tell his sordid tale.

Belfort's brokerage was a boiler room where "pump-and-dump" stock schemes involved pushing cheap, worthless investments on rubes throughout the United States who were convinced by slick salesmen to buy paper that would never pay off. When the stock reached a plateau, Belfort and his cronies sold off, leaving the core investors to suffer the aftermath of junk gone bust.

In his pursuit of the American Dream, Belfort exploited the people most susceptible to the vaporous elusiveness of that dream. As portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, Belfort never gave a damn about the harm he caused. If the film is at all accurate, Belfort was too fucked up on drugs and intoxicated by pussy to comprehend his own behaviors. Even in fleeting moments of lucidity he just doesn't care.

The essential lesson of "Wolf" is that obsessive pursuit of anything (money and sex in this instance), comes at the cost of the soul. This is no epiphany. It is not insightful, beyond the relief that a thoroughly corrupt human being ultimately got his comeuppance, but still finagled a sweet deal with the law and emerged chastened, if relatively unscathed.

In absolute terms, the immorality of the protagonist is never in question: He is a scumbag. While Scorsese is ever-reliable in his flash-bam-pow cinematic style (this movie positively sizzles with energy and bizarre comedy), the story is familiar to anyone who follows the news and the theme seems self-evident to anyone who knows anything about Wall Street.

If the film is to be believed, Belfort enjoyed hiring hookers to shove lighted candles in his ass while dripping melted wax on his bare back. He tossed $100 bills at FBI agents who were investigating his company. He inhaled coke like most people enjoy breathing. He ingested so many Quaaludes that he had to crawl out of a country club. His schemes were so broad and complex that even distant relatives were recruited to launder his money through Swiss banks.

So why should we care? Step back for a second and think on Scorsese's career.

To oversimplify just a bit, "Wolf" is "GoodFellas" substituting guns for Mont Blanc pens. The films explore different worlds, but the motivation within them is still the same as every great Scorsese picture: money, power, sex, drugs, guilt, the hope for redemption. This time the only unconvincing aspect of a Scorsese picture is whether the protagonist truly feels guilt, much less seeks redemption.

Scorsese in his finest hours has been as obsessed and fascinated by these themes as any of his characters who have wallowed gleefully in decadence, madness and self-destruction. Scorsese himself came frightfully close to death in 1979, when a nightmarish addiction to cocaine nearly took his life. Robert De Niro brought to him the project that would become Raging Bull, and Scorsese devoted himself to that film as if it might be his last artistic statement in this life.

Like a moth to a flame, I believe Scorsese is more than just intrigued by these themes that imbue his films. Perhaps he even envies them, but in the case of "Wolf," at least, he cannot commit to a moral position. Still, narrative film is not journalism, in which some notion of objectivity is expected. Narrative film is art, and as an artist, Scorsese until now has always made his stance clear.It is his ambiguity over "Wolf" that makes my own ambivalence more troubling. I just don't believe Scorsese fully understands what he has created. The film was cut multiple times and the release delayed to get the running time under three hours. Maybe commercial considerations tainted the finished product.

Or maybe I expect too much from Scorsese, given his track record of excellence (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellas, The Departed -- even Casino -- come to mind). I was entertained by "Wolf," often extremely so. But I was not enlightened.

For me, transformation is the essence of great drama. Maybe the intent was to slay me with irony. The protagonist of "Wolf" is a degenerate prick and remains so throughout the picture. If that was Scorsese's goal, to show a man fundamentally incapable of change, then I need to think long and hard about the bleakness of that world view. It is not my vision. I believe people are capable of change. At least those who are not sociopaths.

Is sociopathy the key to success in relationships with people (at least short term)? Is an embrace of this ethical wasteland a crucial component of amassing wealth? Is the ability to prey upon people's weaknesses the path to winning? And if so, what has actually been won? Scorsese's film seems to suggest the answers to these four questions are "yes," "yes," "yes" and, "who cares?"

If these are the answers, my friends, that may be cause to reevaluate my response to modern American cinema. If "The Wolf of Wall Street" is intended as a reflection of the world we live in, a hyper-stylized mirror image of the reality that drives the 1 percent of Americans, then I may be ready to talk a little treason. To tear down the walls.

Truth be told, I am an anarchist at heart. In my most calm and calculated moments, this movie made me want to swing the action end of a Louisville Slugger savagely into the faces of several characters. I was revolted. I wanted to do...something. Perversion, selfishness and utter self-absorption should have no place in a world where people ought to love one another. Does that sound precious? Think that at your peril.

Taken in that light, perhaps Scorsese's bloated look at privileged American decadence may prove its value yet.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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