Sunday, December 29, 2013


The city was dead yesterday, the community still in some kind of post-Christmas hangover,  which made for a perfect day to hide out in a movie theater for three hours to watch Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.  But the tiny audience around me, made up largely of older females,  retired dentists, and disturbed loners, was not merely trying to get out of the dank weather; they were splitting a gut laughing. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Quaalude gulping Wall Street icon, was flat on his face, sliding down a brick staircase, trying to get to his car. The customers had been laughing at his drug indulgences all evening, and this was the pay off.  You see, Belfort's home had been bugged by the FBI, and his loudmouthed buddy Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), was on the phone talking to a Swiss banker about one of the many they've scams pulled.  One slip up, and Belfort and Azoff go to prison.

 Belfort, unable to walk because the Quaaludes had left him in a "cerebral palsy" phase,   crawls like a wounded animal to his car, one agonizing inch after an another, contorting himself like a circus performer, and somehow, miraculously, manages to drive home. It is a physical performance by DiCaprio that rivals the best of Steve Martin or Jim Carrey or Jerry Lewis. That it takes place in the middle of one of the most disgusting portrayals of humanity in several years made it that much funnier. At the very least, it was a nice break from watching DiCaprio behaving like Caligula. It was like watching a carton villain get his comeuppance.
Then, even though he's unable to walk, Belfort crawls into his home and begins grappling with Azoff, who also happens to be under the effects of Quaaludes;  the two of them can barely control their movements. As they struggle like two dinosaurs trying to climb out of a tarpit, Belfort manages to yank the phone out of Azoff's hand before Azoff can say anything incriminating. Azoff, meanwhile, starts choking on a piece of ham and collapses. Belfort sees that his buddy can't breathe, so he crawls to his cocaine stash, inhales a mother load of powder like Popeye eating spinach, then rises slowly, triumphantly, to his feet. Momentarily upright because of the cocaine slamming through his body, Belfort performs a desperate Heimlich maneuver on Azoff. When Azoff coughs up the ham, the two buddies collapse on each other. All is well. The scene, like the film, is a whirlwind, taking the audience from laughter to suspense and back to laughter.  There are about 10 other scenes as good or better than that one in this movie. I'm tempted to describe them, but you deserve to see them for yourself.

The little old ladies in the crowd may or may not have known who Martin Scorsese is, or where he belongs in the pantheon of great directors. Chances are they came into this theater because the film  seemed like it was for grown ups. It was either "the wolf movie," or go next door to watch a movie about hobbits.   For me, it was a hell of a Christmas present - Martin Scorsese, at 71, gave us a Martin Scorsese movie. What bigger thrill can there be? After several years of his stylish but overwrought movies, each with moments of brilliance but none matching his best work, here's one from Scorsese that can stand alongside his masterpieces. Granted, it's not as visually sumptuous as his earlier films, and Belfort is certainly not as tortured as Jake La Motta or Travis Bickle, but he's at least as interesting as Henry Hill. Best of all, Scorsese seems to be having a grand old time telling this story of modern decadence.
In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street feels like Goodfellas without the murders. It's to Scorsese's credit that he's made a nearly three hour movie that is never boring, and he doesn't have to kill anybody to keep our attention. Of course, there are hints of darkness here and there, including the suicide of a man who married a slut, and another fellow who dies of a sudden heart attack at 35, both friends of Belfort, both casualties of a reckless, hedonistic life. In one of the few nods to Scorsese's past films, the suicide is shown like an old Weegee tabloid photo, a bloody hand draped over the side of a bathtub.
The whirling dervish screenplay by Terence Winter is based on the confessional memoir by Belfort, the swashbuckling multimillionaire stockbroker, who served nearly two years in prison for defrauding high-profile investors in a Wall Street corruption scandal that included celebrities and banking industry big shots. As crooked as Belfort is, his story is just short of inspirational: he rises from being a 22-year-old rookie on Wall Street to running his own self-made investment brokerage firm selling penny stocks out of an abandoned storefront.  It's not long before he's living a crazed lifestyle that includes a mountainous supply drugs and whores, not to mention the old Wall Street rituals of snorting coke off a hooker's ass, and dwarf tossing. Watching his rise gave me the same giddy feel I get while watching a VH1 documentary about a rock star's rise. Part of the fun is that his operatives are mostly the mooks he knew from Queens, high school buddies who can barely chew with their mouths closed, yet he teaches them the fine art of bullshitting customers over the phone. Belfort's downfall, brought on by greed and arrogance, is just as fascinating as his rise.

The film is helped by several outstanding performances, including Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's Wall Street mentor, Rob Reiner as Belfort's father, and Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent who is on Belfort's trail (Chandler's scene with DiCaprio on the Belfort yacht is another incredible set piece, where Belfort tries to bribe his way out of being investigated.) Joanna Lumley is also perfect as Aunt Emma, a British relation of Belfort's who helps him smuggle money into Switzerland. She's not onscreen for more than a few minutes, but as she winks knowingly, reminding him that she survived the 1960s and understands his desire for indulgence, we see her entire story. 

Jonah Hill is a show-stealer as Azoff, wearing oversized teeth and adapting a voice slightly different than his own to play Belfort's right hand man. In a way, Hill has the part Joe Pesci would've played 20 years ago. He and DiCaprio have an electric chemistry together - I can't recall if Belfort ever tells either of his wives that he loves them, but I vividly recall the times he says those very words to Azoff.
DiCaprio is Oscar worthy as Belfort, rallying his employees with an almost religious fervor, partying like a thug, and battling tooth and nail with his long suffering second wife (Margot Robbie). It's tempting to comment on DiCaprio's "maturity" as an actor, but he's nearly 40; this is as mature as he's going to get, and we may never see him this good again. If the film is a hurricane, he's a hurricane within that hurricane.  It was also smart of Scorsese to cast DiCaprio as Belfort. Belfort is such a sleazy character that a three hour film about him should be unbearable. DiCaprio, though, even when he punches his wife in the ribs, remains somewhat likable. (The crowd I was with reacted strangely when he hit her - not with jeers, but with a sound of disappointment, something like "Awww..." like he'd picked the wrong door on a game show. It was as if they'd thought he was really a nice boy, and decking his wife was just a temporary case of bad judgment.)
The real star of the film is Scorsese. He's like an experienced jockey, lashing this movie across the haunches to bring it to full speed, taking it around sharp turns, up steep inclines, down slippery slopes.  All that he's learned about twisted male camaraderie is on display here, presented gloriously. The film not only moves with the sweep and grandeur of his earlier films, but it's infused with new touches, particularly the heavy use of Bo Diddley and Howling Wolf on the soundtrack (Old Scorsese buddy Robbie Robertson is credited as "music supervisor"). Hearing so many vintage Diddley hits was fascinating (as was watching DiCaprio pop and lock to Diddley's 'Road Runner' in one of the film's many party scenes) but the tunes also made sense within the film's framework. The story of man's greed and gluttony reaches back centuries. What better way to symbolize that than with the chaka-chaka rhythms of Elias McDaniel, whose sounds seem to belong to some primitive era, where men fought for supremacy in caves and jungles. The crazy growls of Howling Wolf's 'Smokestack Lightning' threatened to bust the walls of the theater, the echo of the old Chess recording momentarily taking us out of Wall Street and into one of Wolf's hoodoo nightmares. It was spellbinding.

Some critics have questioned whether the film is celebrating or condemning Belfort. I think people who ask these questions are underestimating the intelligence of filmgoers.  Belfort is undoubtedly a lowlife. If people leave the theater feeling strangely uplifted, it's not because they identified with Belfort, or condoned his lifestyle. They revel in the film because of Scorsese's artistry. Of course, some folks are so disgusted by the behavior onscreen that they can't appreciative what a strong film this is. Let me leave the final word on The Wolf of Wall Street to one of the elderly female patrons who was overheard as she exited the theater: "That was repulsive, but so well-made."

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