Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

One of the joys of watching a film by Martin Scorsese is the confidence, even swagger, with which he tells his stories. There is an exuberance to the narratives that can be just as intoxicating as the drugs used by his characters. To some extent his power as a filmmaker is similar to the power Jordan Belfort, the main character in The Wolf of Wall Street, has when he is trying to sell things, anything, to a group of people. In that respect Scorsese might be the perfect director for this film. It might also be a reason why so many take issue with the film. had an excellent pace and rhythm with one of the best uses of voice-over/direct address in modern cinema, and several set pieces were fantastic, none more so than when Belfort and Donnie Azoff are experiencing the delayed effects of a powerful drug, severely inhibiting their control over their bodies and their ability to talk. There is a magic touch to the film, such as when a Ferrari suddenly changes colour whilst in motion. (Belfort is not necessarily a trustworthy narrator.) There was also a lot of good acting, especially Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey. (By the way, they released two trailers for the film: the first was excellent, the second much less so. What happened there? Why did they feel the need to make a new one?)

In some ways The Wolf of Wall Street, much like The Big Bang Theory, can be seen as Revenge of the Nerds writ large. The characters in WoWS, with the exception of Belfort, are not exactly the brightest kids in the room and they might very well have been picked last at gym sessions in school. But now it is payback time, and they aim to skin the fat cats and fuck as much, and as many, as humanly possible. They are not bankers, and they are not really on Wall Street either (that is just where Jordan Belfort works for a few days in the beginning). They are basically con men, so in a way the film is as related to The Sting (George Roy Hill 1973, which is a good film) as it is to Wall Street (Oliver Stone 1987, which is not). The victims at first are poorer middle class but that is presented as more of a moral problem, partly articulated by Belfort's then wife Teresa Petrillo. After that talk Belfort and his friends decide to go after those who are already rich and have lots of money to spend. Those who have criticised the film for not showing the victims of Belfort's frauds have to some extent showed themselves to be surprisingly concerned for the lives of the rich. Although, here the film is somewhat hazy because some of Stratton Oakmont's victims were not that rich.

The most persisted complaint against the film is that it is not critical, but glamourises these people and their behaviour. Yet the film opens with the people at Stratton Oakmont's office throwing a dwarf and then there is a freeze frame just as the head of the dwarf is about to hit the target. Is that not enough to make the point that this is a film about characters that are appalling in all ways? The film does not leave it at that though, there are several such scenes (a female employee's head is shaved in one scene, and she is clearly most uncomfortable with it) leading up to the end where there is a scene in which Belfort almost kills his daughter. Why would Scorsese have such scenes in the film if it was not to condemn these people and their behaviour? It seems to me to be clear that Scorsese wanted to show how it was possible for Belfort to get away with what he did; to show his shallow charm and persuasiveness while at the same time showing how he was a person who ruined everybody he came into contact with, including himself.

"Stratton Oakmont is America" Belfort says in one pep talk, and the film seems to be saying that yes, America is like Stratton Oakmont and that is a very bad thing. The film, much like Pain and Gain (Michael Bay 2013), is about the "American Dream" where the dream is presented as a shortcut to an abyss. But it is not just the stock brokers, the guys at Stratton Oakmont would not have succeed if ordinary people had not been so pathetically eager to beat the odds and get rich(er) fast. And it is not only an American thing of course, it is universal. In the last image of the film we see the awed faces of ordinary kiwis (the scene is set in Auckland, New Zealand) trying to learn from Belfort how to get rich quickly. We have met the enemy and he is us, as Pogo said.

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A number of other Swedish bloggers has also written about the film. Here are links. The first blog is in English, the others in Swedish: The Velvet Café, Fripps, Rörliga bilder och ord, Jojjenito, FiffiHar du inte sett den, Movies-Noir, Except FearFilmparadiset.

12 comments:

  1. What a great review, I think you sum it up so perfect.

    The head-shaving-scen is so sad in so many ways. The movie itself is somewhat sad. I get a feeling that it´s a much wider assault on a human body to shave a womans head for money than to use a woman sexually for money. Or is someone trying to tell me that is´s just the same thing? We can all be bought. Some by trading their looks for money, some by trading their bodys for money, some by selling their souls and some by giving up their lives for someone that could provide enough money.

    Meja was right the whole time, it's all 'bout the money, it's all 'bout the dum dum dum dum dum dum..... ;)

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  2. The message is kind of clear. Evidently not clear enough though cause the movie game a weird desire to blow coke in to a hookers butt. That can't be good right?

    And all this dwarf tossin and stock market scamming didn't ruin Belford. In the end it just made him stronger.

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  3. Great text, Fredrik.

    This guy Jordan did some illegal and some (many) immoral things. Illegal were the drugs and the violation of rules for trading and such. The other stuff was him preying on all the schmucks that gave him the chance to pery on them, and for that I am not especially concerned. Quoting Gordon Gekko from Wall Street: "Why do you need to wreck this company?" "Because it's wreckable, all right?" It's the same here. These idiots who wants to get a free lunch, wants to get rich quick and easy, they had it coming. It's the American dream all over again. Sometimes it can be the best and most valuable thing in the world, but often it is dirty and rotten...

    And Johan, I too would love to blow coke into a hookers butt! And I'll take a film that gives me that desire every day in the week. :)

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    1. To quote from another film, "We all have it coming kid."

      But would it be too much to ask that you don't share your sexual fantasies about prostitutes here?

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    2. LOL. Was only trying to give Johan some sympathy!

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  4. To be honest with you, I actually didn't have anything against the characters in the movie. I mean, sure they're bad people. But mostly they harmed themselves (apart from taking money from people). They wasted money on drugs, hookers and parties. A lot of people made money as well. You could say that they just gave it to other people :)

    Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker do a great job with this three hour long film. The pacing is excellent and so is the editing. It has a feel of a Scorsese picture, but at the same time he gives us something new, something fresh that works.

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  5. I'm not sure I agree with the allusion to TBBT. The whole point about nerds is that they might be losers socially but that they are winners intellectually. And as you say, the gang surrounding Jordan can hardly be called intellectual winners. It is actually a bit of a mystery as to how they manage to be so successful, even with the illegal stuff taken into account.

    I agree with you in that the movie does not wholly glamourise Jordans actions, I would just have liked a bit more of the dark stuff like the shaving scene for example (which was brilliant in all its simplicity).

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    1. If intellectual capabilities is what is needed to be called a nerd they most certainly are not. Maybe another word would be more apt.

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  6. BTW, about Stratton Oakmont being America. Jordan quite rightly says that the company is a "land of opportunities". On the other hand as soon as the government starts messing with them, there is no love lost between the two (pee is involved...). I have the impression that America as the land of opportunities is not synonymous with the United States of America, but more like an idealised fairyland which every viewer can fill with his or her own content. It becomes perhaps more of a rhetorical concept than anything else?

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    1. If I'm not mistaken he likens their office to Ellis Island.

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    2. I think the office becomes both Ellis Island and the land of opportunities, all rolled into one :)

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