Sunday, February 9, 2014

"The Wolf of Wall Street"

I had no intention of going to "The Wolf of Wall Street" after first seeing the trailer. The movie appeared loud, frenetic, paper thineverything that is loathsome in contemporary American cinema.

But Martin Scorsese is my favorite living director. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for much of his work over the past couple decades, I end up seeing every movie he makes. I always hold out hope that he has one more "Mean Streets" in him, or at least a vehicle well-suited to his sensibility that hints at the magical elements from the Holy Trinity ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas"). After reading reviews which applauded the vibrancy and technical prowess of "The Wolf of Wall Street," I thought Scorsese's newest release might fall into the latter category, and my initial resistance fell away. 

"The Wolf of Wall Street" follows Jordan Belfort, the stockbroker who ran Stratton Oakmonta highly profitable Long Island brokerage houseduring the go-go Clinton years. The
One of many larger-than-life party scenes in "The Wolf of Wall Street"

story line tracks an ambitious young man who gets fabulously wealthy through fraud, manipulation, and money laundering, but the plot details aren't what define this movie so much as the sense of spectacle—a parade of drink, drugs, sex, and greed graphically rendered by Scorsese's hyperkinetic camera eye.

Comparisons to "Goodfellas" are inevitable. Both are based on real-life stories which trade on the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction. Both have a voiceover narrative from a protagonist who boasts about his lavish lifestyle and the cons he pulls off along with scenes of triumphalism as the lucre gushes in. Both include testosterone-lacecamaraderie and comic set pieces with sharp tit-for-tat dialog (Jonah Hill is particularly funny in "Wolf"). Both feature classic blues and cocaine, an outlaw lifestyle in which men beat the system and love every minute of it. Both tuck a fall from grace in at the end. 

The movies differ in their capacity to sustain the viewer's interest over a long running time. The first ninety minutes of "Wolf" is fast-paced and entertaining, but gravity asserts itself in the second hour-and-a half. There's none of the tightly-drawn suspense at the end that we saw in "Goodfellas"; the overlong narrative finishes with a whimper, not a bang.

The protagonists in the two movies offer another contrast. Henry Hill, the main character in "Goodfellas," is a blue collar guy with some sense of honor who chooses crime mainly to avoid a dreaded 9-5 existence. On some level I was rooting for Henry Hill to escape comeuppance from the law. 

By contrast, Belfort is a white collar criminal with little loyalty to anyone; he gets off on
attaining money for its own sake. We see nothing in Belfort's early life, no major damage or serious struggle, that would help explain his thirst for endless rounds of drugs, hookers, and deception. It's hard to care when the FBI inevitably swoops in on a sociopath

Unlike some indignant critics, I don't fault Martin Scorsese for glorifying Belfort's lifestyle; the writ large style of "Wolf" is Scorsese's personal voice, not an endorsement of bad behavior. What I question is Scorsese's decision to make a three-hour movie about a character in whom we can't invest a scintilla of concern.  

   Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:

                   "There must be something in the water: the magic of 'Muscle Shoals'"

                                                                        "Inequality for All"

                                                             "A spoiler-free review of 'Mud'"   


"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")

"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")

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