Friday, December 20, 2013

High finance

A white-collar criminal from a blue-collar background with a monstrous appetite for red light commodities, broker/entrepreneur-turned-ex-con/motivational speaker Jordan Belfort is nothing if not colourful—he’s positively gaudy. Had he not authored two memoirs, his tabloid-epic life story would surely seem too preposterous/libellous to translate into credible based-on-a-true-story cinema. It’s only sensible that The Wolf of Wall Street opens with teasers of high-stakes dwarf tossing and an inebriated helicopter ride; we need a taste of what high-flying lowbrow transgressions the next three hours have in store.

Scripted by Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter, directed by Martin Scorsese, and featuring a name ensemble cast fronted by Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s difficult to think of another film combining such appalling behaviour with such A-list pedigree that’s played, above all, for grotesque, balls-out, amoral entertainment. That so much of The Wolf of Wall Street is actually entertaining is some kind of feat: its characters are hard to care about, its narrative is baggy, its star can be as tedious as he is admirably shameless, and its septuagenarian director seems both on his game and off his rocker. Riddled with continuity errors, lacking a consistently coherent chronology, and intermittently oblivious as to what constitutes the heart of a scene, Wolf is one of the generally meticulous Scorsese’s sloppiest works. Maybe he was having too much fun. The upshot is that the fun is onscreen, pulsing, like a raw nerve jacked up.

Anyone familiar with Scorsese’s large canvas rise-and-fall epics of rabid American ambition will feel perfectly oriented within Wolf’s adrenalized storytelling strategies. The disaffected voice-over, equal parts confession and braggadocio; the rock connoisseur’s soundtrack; the injection of freeze-frames or slow-motion into frenetic montages offering guided tours of the given milieu: we’ve been here before. But a pleasing thing about Wolf is that its tone echoes The King of Comedy almost as much as Goodfellas or Casino. What drives Belfort isn’t just greed, hubris or spite—he’s a showman! (Again, Belfort’s already written two memoirs—he’s only 51.) Wolf is about performance, incorporating hi-jinx with slapstick, mirth with mayhem. Once his brokerage/penny stock boiler room, Stratton Oakmont, is rocketing toward millionaire mega-success (and multiple counts of fraud), Belfort gives daily, drug-addled pep talks to his colleagues—mostly thugs he came up with in Queens—rocking the mic like a rowdy wrestler or stand-up comic. He hires show-hookers, marching bands, and, as promised, tossable dwarves. One of Wolf’s most absurd sequences finds Belfort and his business partner Donnie (Jonah Hill) ODing on Quaaludes to the point of near-catatonia and getting into a wrestling match involving a phone chord that needs to be seen to be believed. Stratton Oakmont was too much an outlier to serve as a stand-in for finance sector fraudulence in general, so don’t think of Wolf as social commentary except in the broadest sense. This is, above all, busy, teeth-grindingly giddy high wire comedy.

On that note, I have to single out Hill, Wolf’s own king of comedy. A paragon of the supporting actor, Hill deftly gauges DiCaprio’s gradations of hysteria at every turn and devises the best possible manner of matching it. There’s a brilliant early scene where he explains how he came to marry his cousin, and another where he introduces Belfort to crack cocaine. Only 30 (as of today, in fact), Hill is only gradually revealing his range and abilities. Between this and Moneyball, you start to wonder if the kid can do anything. Of course, over the course of Wolf’s taboo-thrashing carnival show, you’ll see him and DiCaprio do just about everything. That might be worth the ticket price and protracted run-time alone. 

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