Saturday, December 28, 2013

Greed Is Good, But Girls And Drugs Are Better

Reel To Reel: The Wolf Of Wall Street

Going Rate: Worth matinee price, if you have the stomach for it
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner
Rated: R (but really deserves an NC-17)
Red Flags: Graphic scenes of sex, graphic talk about sex, graphic use of cocaine and quaaludes, copious use of the "f" word -- more than 500 times. Not for teenagers, and not for many adults either, unless you are seeking to teach or learn a twisted lesson on how money and power corrupt absolutely.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a three-hour orgy of money, sex and drugs -- but mostly sex in gratuitously unashamed bursts interspersed with scenes of drug abuse and gritty frat-boy conversations about money and how to make it.  Directed by the great Martin Scorsese, people will remember it more for its unrestrained hedonism rather than its subject:  real-life stock hustler Jordan Belfort, who did two years in prison on charges of manipulating markets by pushing nearly worthless stock as part of a scheme to make his cronies rich on the backs of anybody pushing a dollar his way.

We meet Belfort (DiCaprio) head-on as somebody who loves everything in excess, and he narrates his rise to ruthless power broker from a phone-punching cold caller.  Turned on by both the excitement and courseness of the stock game, and with some disgustingly frank advice from a supervisor, he does okay for himself until Black Monday of 1987 leaves him without a job.  Through a newspaper ad, he finds the only place hiring stockbrokers is a storefront brokerage house pumping penny stocks for outrageous commissions.  Belfort's hard-driving selling skills quickly earn him money and respect, and with a newfound partner, Donnie Azhoff (Hill), he starts the Stratton Oakmont brokerage inside an auto-repair garage.  We see Belfort train a gallery of people who, to quote Gordon Gekko, "wouldn't know preferred stock from livestock" using a script designed to help them close even the most wary of investors in one phone call.

Stratton Oakmont quickly expands, as does its decadence.  Belfort gladly rewards his associates with booze and hookers, charging a lot of it to an American Express account.  Its employees wallow in depravity as the sales office becomes a circus of hard selling and insatiable indulgence, where signs tell people not to have sex in the bathrooms between certain hours.  Outside work, it only gets bigger and bolder as Belfort holds huge parties with even more Neandrathal behavior.  One scene is devoted to an office conversation about throwing midgets at a target for an office promotion.  Amazingly, nobody seems to draw any lines -- unless they're lines of cocaine -- leaving me to wonder whether Belfort attracted these kinds of boors or created them on the job.  He brings in his father Max (Reiner) to help keep some semblance of order, but his role is largely to wander through the picture in disbelief at the massive degradation of standards and deal with the lawyers.

But the office antics are nothing compared to Belfort's big vices:  sex and drugs.  He tears through cocaine and quaaludes multiple times a day, as do his pals, often in conjunction with lewd acts with women, which the film throws at us glibly and without remorse.  At times, the film gets so wound up in its lust and ludes that it loses its focus from a tale of excess to just excess. Nowhere do we see the effects of Belfort's firm on investors, who were mostly super-rich, and the film hints they could afford a rip-off or two.

Stratton Oakmont can't rake in millions of dollars on penny stocks and IPO fraud without somebody getting hurt, and eventually the feds take notice.  FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) stays on Belfort's tail, but can't move in for the kill as the firm's employees confound or block investigators.  Belfort decides it's time to move money offshore, resulting in logistical problems that signal the beginning of the end of this corrupt Roman Empire of the financial world.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is a longer, crasser version of Scorsese's Casino, which was also crass, but its crassness was redeemed by its compelling characters and brisk pacing.  Take nothing away from Leonardo DiCaprio, though.  He envelops Jordan Belfort to the hilt, occasionally showing a hint of humanity, but mostly showing his overpowering greed which makes Gordon Gekko look like a two-bit broker. His twisted, hard-charging speeches on salesmanship are one of the film's few redeeming qualities, but even that seems to be pushing it. Everybody else in this film is along for the corrupt ride, save for possibly Jonah Hill, whose relationship with the title character gets to expand outside of wild parties.

I needed a shower after I saw this. I also needed to avert my eyes several times (Psalm 101:3: "I will set no worthless thing before my eyes") to edit out the most egregious displays of sexual vileness. Fortunately, my Royal Father and Queen Mother watched American Hustle a few screens away in the same multiplex.  Having read some advanced write-ups, I warned them this is not a film I would be comfortable seeing with my parents.  I was correct.  Some scenes seem more apropos for a porn flick than a Scorsese flick.  How this film dodged an NC-17 rating baffles me, leaving me to conclude it got in just under the wire, somehow convincing the MPAA that its sex wasn't excessive enough or long enough to warrant an adults-only certification.  That's a sales job Belfort would be proud of.

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