27 December 2013

First Impressions: The Wolf of Wall Street

As if Martin Scorsese needed to add to his long legacy at age 71, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a pretty damn worthwhile companion to anything the famed director has done exploring the excesses of debauchery and terrible human behavior. This is perhaps Scorsese's most simultaneously ridiculous, hilarious, horrifying, and confident film in years. It's also Leo and Jonah at their most unhinged, and its three-hour run times feels like fifteen minutes by the end of it. It's that rare film where everything is firing hard, crisp, and crazy. SPOILERS to come, folks.

Steve Maddon!
Wolf makes a fine addition to the sort of series of high-level Scorsese ensemble flicks he makes every couple years like Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Departed (2006). In fact, if Wolf has any major flaw it's simply that it highly resembles a financial version of Goodfellas, especially its ending. It's about a man who rises up from nothing through hardly legal means, gets addicted to all manner of drugs, abuses every personal relationship in his life, and ultimately tries to find some redemption when his life falls apart. Actually, Henry Hill is a bit more redeemable than Jordan Belfort.

If you could go back in time and tell me that the whiny kid from Titanic (1997) would eventually have a series of collaborations with Scorsese to rival his work with Bob De Niro, I might sock you in the mouth. Leo DiCaprio is going crazier than he ever has before here, though, bolder and wilder than anything he's put on screen. There's none of the brooding he's done in every other Scorsese partnership or even Inception (2010). He's loose and enjoying every Bacchanalian moment on screen.

As for that - the film presents a non-stop orgy of douchebaggery, with excesses of racism, misogyny, and the crudest treatment possible of homosexuals, disabled, and little people. From midget tossing to cousin-fucking, these people are the worst kinds of degenerates ever put on screen. It's fitting then, to compare them with the murderers and drug peddlers of Goodfellas. I mean, they're all worse people than mobsters.

It's natural that this film comes out in the wake of a global financial meltdown and films like Inside Job (2010) or even The Other Guys (2010). We've all seen what these people are capable of - swindling money out of millions of people with little to no accountability - the richest 1% lording over the rabbles of the 99%. It's a question of morality - poor thieves and murderers do much more time in prison than the rich, who steal to get richer. What are these people actually like, though?

According to The Wolf of Wall Street, they're the most hard-partying, lying, cheating, testosterone-fueled (even the women), whore banging-then-penicillin injecting, crazy-ass motherfuckers to ever walk this earth. At the top of this is Jonah Hill, as Donnie Azoff. Now, if anyone can remember Michael Cera's fictional version of himself in This is The End (2013), you'd have a good idea of this crazy dude. He's Wolf's Joe Pesci - an utterly irredeemable bastard that epitomizes the worst parts of Wall Street bro sub-culture. It's not only the quaaludes and whores, but the despicable ways he treats his closest friends, business partners, and family. There is nothing good about this human being. He's the amoral, out of control element of the film.

Leo as Belfort himself, is somewhat better, but not by that much. His one redeeming moment, where he attempts to differentiate himself from Goodfellas' Henry Hill may be his sly attempts to not rat out his friends when the time comes. Of course, this blows up in his face (possibly due to a betrayal by Donnie), and he has to do his time and be a rat anyway.

Belfort really falls to the drugs, though. Even facing certain death, he's desperate for a lude ("I will not die sober!"), even risking his life and everyone else's around him. The Lemmon 714 quaalude scene may also be one of the more enjoyable of the year, even though there's this real drama of sadness to it. It's capped off with him consuming cocaine explicitly like Popeye (seriously, it's intercut with Popeye clips) to gain super-cokehead strength. There's both a cartoonish quality here and a real drama, which makes it inexplicable among any other movie this year.

The rest of the cast is killing it. Matt McConaughey appears briefly to first show Leo the ropes of the financial industry. Cristin Milioti, coming off her recent appointment as the eponymous mother on How I Met Your Mother, also shows up as this real Lorraine Bracco-like early wife of Belfort's. There's also little moments with Jean Dujardin, Joe Bernthal, and Ethan Supplee that are a pleasant whirr.

Plus - dance!
Ultimately, the film demonstrates that these people act like they do out of a complete lack of accountability. There's no punishment here. Not when money is the only thing at stake. Sure they suffer horrendous personal relationships, lose family members, and deal with Mediterranean hurricanes, but even in the face of jail time, the only thing they have to lose is cash. And there's always more cash. It's this unsustainable drive. It's why Belfort can't quit in the face of armageddon. He just can't stop, even after he tries to go straight and serves prison time. Being a conniving, money-grubbing asshole is who he is, and there's no appeasing that appetite.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an instantaneous Scorsese classic. It's definitively one of his funner movies, but with a heady amount of pain, desperation, and naturally, the least moral characters put on film since Casino. It's about impossible redemption, a greed that's never satiated, and the worst that men are capable of outside of a murderous rampage.

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