Saturday, July 1, 2017

Chris' #73: The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Release Date: December 25, 2013

IMDB Synopsis: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stock-broker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption, and the federal government.

First Time
I remember this vividly because it was one of the worst movie theater experiences I've ever had--though it was much worse for Jeff. Jeff and Brent were up from Philly for Christmas and the three of us went to see this together. It was a sold out, evening show at AMC in Vestal. We purchased our tickets in advance, and because AMC has assigned seating, we thought we'd be okay showing up around the time that the trailers would start. We took our seats in the middle of a row--I was the closest to the middle; there was a dude seated to the left of me, Brent sat to my right, and Jeff sat to right of him. In the time between the trailers ending and the movie starting, several people walked over to Jeff and told him that he was in their seat, so he kept moving to an open one (I believe?). Eventually, all of the seats were full, so Brent got up to get help from an usher.

At this point, we know that the dude to the left of me is in Jeff's seat and Brent directed the usher to that area of the theater. The usher walks over to the dude and asks to see his ticket. Dude pulls out his ticket and shows it to him. The movie has already started, so the only light source in the room came from the project film. The usher literally looked at the ticket for a split second. There was no way in hell that the usher matched the seat number to where the dude was sitting, but he just assumed it correct because he was handed a ticket. Then the usher begins to wander over to the row ahead of us. People are getting annoyed at this point--they're trying to watch a movie and this usher is timidly asking them to check their tickets and make sure they're in the right spot. The usher is ignored by everyone. Instead of persisting and doing his job, the usher just gives up and leaves. Jeff is left without a seat.

Feeling frustrated and pissed, Jeff comes over to us and says that he's going to go to Brandon's and hang out there until the movie is over. It was weird as hell sitting there for the rest of the movie. Brent and I talked about leaving, but because Jeff had someplace to go, we decided to stick it out. After the movie ended, Brent confronted the dude; I don't remember the exchange but I believe he maintained that he was in the right seat. For what it's worth, the manager at AMC was very helpful and issued Jeff a refund.

You'd think that assigned seating would help to avoid issues like these, but I suppose the lesson for moviegoers is to still try and show up early, and the lesson for ushers is actually do their jobs.

Why it's on the List
Moving from an injustice on smaller scale to an injustice on a much larger one, The Wolf of Wall Street presents the life of Wall Street stock-broker and notable douchebag, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). While I do love this film, I need to acknowledge the coked-out elephant in the room. The story is repugnant and vile, and many people (including John) can't enjoy this film on any level. I can see where those people are coming from; there's no defending Jordan's behavior, and given Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter's efforts on this, one could make the case that the film glorifies depravity.

The Wolf of Wall Street is like a Rorschach Test--morally bankrupt scumbags will watch this film and aspire to be next Jordan Belfort; innocuous dumb-dumbs will laugh at the jokes and jerk off to Margot Robbie's scenes, without taking much else away from the experience; others will see a film that is well-acted and adeptly written, shot, and edited.

Not only do I fall into that last camp, but I also appreciate the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street actually causes me to feel angry. Good films elicit strong reactions, whether negative or positive. It's infuriating that Belfort was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he did--though, honestly, I feel his personality is more of an affront than his "penny stock" scheme. I'm just not too beat up over the fact that he made his wealth from scamming other rich assholes.

Regardless of my own moral compass, Belfort's actions were illegal and caught the attention of the FBI, specifically Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in the film. I hadn't seen Chandler in anything before this and I never thought much of him as an actor. He completely won me over here; his performance is very understated and brilliant. I love the way Agent Denham toys with Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) during their first meeting on a yacht (which is my favorite scene). As a cocky kid who's gotten away with a lot already, Belfort tries to charm the Feds and thinks that he's successfully manipulating Denham. Chandler is perfect for the role because he has a real "average joe" vibe. Given the way that Chandler plays the scene, it's very understandable that Belfort would be lulled into a false sense of security. Jordan ends up saying too much and Denham seizes that moment to show that he's also capable of being a wolf. I love the turn, as the conversation quickly shifts from congenial to caustic. This was the moment when I knew I loved this movie.

Matthew McConaughey's performance in Dallas Buyers Club beat out DiCaprio's performance in this at the 86th Academy Awards. McConaughey was great in DBC, and I can understand wanting to honor a person like Ron Woodruff over someone like Jordan Belfort, but Leo was robbed. Not only is DiCaprio perfect in this, but I feel it's the best performance he's ever given. Belfort became something of a cult leader at Stratton Oakmont, and given Leo's charisma, it's easy to see why.

One of my favorite examples of Stratton being a cult occurs when Jordan gives "farewell" speech at the firm. About a minute and a half into it, Jordan turns his attention to one of the Stratton's first brokers, Kimmie Belzer. He explains to his cult members that when Kimmie came to him, she "didn't even have two nickels to rub together." Kimmie was behind on rent and asked Jordan for a five thousand dollar salary advance so that she could pay her son's tuition. Instead of offering her five grand, Jordan gave her twenty-five thousand dollars. This nostalgia prompts Kimmie to tell Jordan that she "fucking loves" him and the other cult members are whipped up into a frenzy. I'm coming at this scene in a very sardonic way, but I do love the complexity and emotionality of that moment. We can feel Kimmie thinking back on her old life, a time when she truly struggled; it's very palpable and always makes me think back on a low point in my life when I had to borrow money from my mom just to put gas in my tank. In response to Belzer's "I fucking you's," Jordan tells her that he loves her too. That might be the only moment in the film when Jordan says that he loves anything. I'm sure there are many reasons for Belfort to tell this story in that moment, and while it doesn't redeem him, it adds a human element to this story. The brokers at Stratton Oakmont were living, breathing people who weren't born into wealth, and the film does an exceptional job at shining the occasional spotlight on that fact.

Jonah Hill's performance in this is also amazing. I love the commitment to the role; it's a true transformation. Other than being eye candy, Margot Robbie doesn't have a lot to do in this, but her performance is very authentic; I was surprised to learn later that she's Australian. The deteriorating relationship between Jordan and his second wife give us the true consequences of this greedy, drugged up, and unfaithful stock broker's actions. Belfort reaches his lowest point when he attempts to kidnap his daughter and drive off with her. Luckily for everyone involved, the kidnapping is not successful and Jordan's child is not harmed in the process. I don't know of many people who would watch that scene and think, "This is the life for me!" With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese and Winter give us an unabashed, unflinching look at substance abuse in both a literal and figurative sense.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • There are two more Scorsese movies on my list; it'll be a while before I write about them.
  • This is it for Leo. I do love his work as an actor. It was nice to see him finally win an Academy Award, but should've been for this. Funny enough, watching Leo as Belfort was the way I wanted to feel when I watched Leo playing Calvin Candy. His performance in Django Unchained had a lot of promise but was underwhelming.
  • I considered adding Superbad to my list, but it'll have to crack my top 200--this is it for Jonah Hill. He's had quite the career #HotTakes
  • Speaking of unorthodox careers, it's funny how the McConaissance has changed the way many of us view Matthew McConaughey. Count me among the people who root for the guy, but this is it for him in my top 100.
  • Shea Whigham has a cameo in this, and I'll get to talk about him more with my next pick...

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