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Film review -- The Wolf of Wall Street ***.

By Preston Wilder

Men behaving badly. For three hours. With midget-tossing. The Wolf of Wall Street is easy to describe -- and easy to watch, at least for the first hour or so (then it starts to get monotonous). One alternates between a kind of wonder that director Martin Scorsese is still so vital and full of energy at the age of 71, and a kind of alarm that one of the greatest American directors can be so immature and superficial. Either filmmaking keeps you young, or it's not a job for grown-ups.

The men behaving badly are Wall Street brokers, led by real-life millionaire crook Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). They ingest lots of drugs, enough "to sedate Manhattan, Long Island and Queens for a month", as explained in exhaustive detail in Belfort's voice-over (Quludes, their drug of choice, are something of a Special Guest Star). They have lots of sex, though their prowess is questionable; Belfort lasts exactly 11 seconds, though admittedly that's his first time with the lovely Naomi (Margot Robbie) who later becomes his second wife. They also toss midgets for a laugh, having previously planned the caper in wildly offensive terms (referring to the little people as "these things"). And the best part? They do all this while taking your money -- millions and millions of dollars -- and giving nothing back.

"It's not real," explains Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's early mentor. It's "a fugazi." Wall Street is a sham, a chimera. The money isn't real; it exists only on paper. The clients' money, that is -- because clients are encouraged (or forced) to keep buying, the broker's job being to feed their addiction. They can never be allowed to cash in; that would make it real. The brokers' money, on the other hand -- their commission -- is real enough. It buys 170-foot yachts and enormous houses, not to mention all those drugs -- though in fact money itself is the ultimate drug, a point the film makes explicitly. It's three hours of junkies and sociopaths, disguised as a raucous comedy.

Scorsese has been here before. Both Goodfellas and Casino were men-behaving-badly epics, only with gangsters instead of brokers. The two milieus have much in common, notably a wild macho energy -- but there's also a difference. Mafiosi want 'respect', the kind of solemn existential concept that pushes Scorsese's spiritual buttons (it's well-known that he tried to become a Catholic priest as a young man). Brokers only want money; they don't care about respect. When Belfort is termed 'the Wolf of Wall Street' by Forbes magazine, it's not meant as a compliment -- but it gets him free publicity, so he doesn't care. He's happy to trade penny stocks, the lowest of the low, when he learns they come with a 50 per cent commission. Money might be called a kind of church, but if so it's a much less demanding one than Catholicism (or the Mafia); its only commandment is to make more money. Belfort and his colleagues don't even 'respect' each other, necessarily -- they respect each other's knack for playing the market: "Sell me this pen".

This heretically shallow philosophy seems to have liberated Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street is very funny, a kind of big-budget Jackass with one outrageous stunt after another. It's also one-dimensional, staying with the alienated sociopaths in their frenzied little bubble-world. The very last shot is the only one that offers some perspective -- Belfort's punishment being exile among the normal people, clueless boobs who couldn't "sell me this pen" to save their lives -- and the most effective moment in the whole three-hour movie.

This is an extreme film, best appreciated by viewers with extreme opinions. Rabid anti-capitalists are likely to find it uproariously satirical, and the more it pounds the same note the more delighted they'll be. The self-righteous, uptight or puritanical may find it all deeply offensive. Those of us who simply think of money as a necessary evil, on the other hand -- and figured out long ago that those who make the most money don't necessarily work the hardest, or perform the most valuable work, or have the highest morals -- may wonder why the film had to be so long (McConaughey gives the best performance, partly because he's only onscreen for about 15 minutes), and lament the glints of immaturity in Scorsese's makeup, even after all these years. The scene where Belfort and his cohorts interrogate the gay butler on suspicion of pilfering is a fine bit of comedy -- but it goes nowhere except gratuitous violence, which is disappointing.

Money is a drug, hence a form of denial; the film is aware of this. Now and then, just for a second, the mask drops: three years later the guy got depressed and killed himself, says Belfort of some Wall Street associate -- and we get a brief, bloody insert, then the breezy voice-over continues: "Anyway..." Wolf of Wall Street isn't great, admittedly. It lacks nuance, momentum, richness -- yet it's clearly not an endorsement of its heroes, however much it may wallow in their bad behaviour. "The way I looked at it, [the clients'] money was better off in my pocket. I knew how to spend it better," says Belfort at one point, and his callous insouciance is hilarious -- but also, clearly, deluded. He has the air of a debauched aristo, and the stunted worldview of a moral midget. Wait, did someone say midget?

DIRECTED BY Martin Scorsese

STARRING Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

US 2013 180 mins

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Date:Mar 24, 2014
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