Debauchery ‘R’ Us: The Wolf of Wall Street

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Early in the bacchanalia that is Martin Scorsese’s latest The Wolf of Wall Street, titular “wolf” Jordan Belfort – portrayed with a Jack Nicholson-esque level of pop-eyed cuckoo by exceptional Leonardo DiCaprio – describes his unique work philosophy thusly: “Give ’em to me young, hungry, and stupid.”

And that about sums up the movie.

There’s been a lot of haughty debate-team hyperbole about how the film is a morality tale for our ages or how it is a disgustingly self-indulgent, overly long mess.

Yup. It’s both.

But the pundits are missing a crucial point. This film is neither celebration nor indictment of the participants in a mid-90s scheme to debunk both rich and poor via the proliferation of something called “penny stocks.” Rather, the film is a sly comic valentine to society’s scruffy, scrappy sweathogs who subsist on the scraps handed down by a byzantine capitalist superstructure … and who one day figure out how to out-crook the crooks running the show.

I enjoyed myself greatly, but I found myself looking at my watch … a lot. It wasn’t that the movie is boring. Not. At. All. But it’s just so much of the same, and the narrative heft doesn’t really necessitate a three hour running time. (For a similar and more expeditiously told version of a comparable tale, check out Kevin Spacey’s criminally underrated Casino Jack about skeezy scammer Jack Abramoff.)

The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the true-life memoir of Belfort, is a hoot, but it’s a hard-to-recommend one. Given the prodigious nudity, drug-use, profanity, and all-out reprehensible behavior on display, I feel quite saucy exclaiming with arms outstretched, “Go see this slice of AMERICANA!” But you kinda should.

We know this crap goes on every day of every month of every year, yet we barely connect with the implications of such sordid behavior other than a few minutes reading about such an incident in a Yahoo! headline or catching a glimpse of Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow expressing their liberal ironic disgust.

Scorsese is a manic delight as a director, and I always enjoy his overstuffed, hyperkinetic fantasias. From Mean Streets to Goodfellas to Gangs of New York to The Departed, he humanizes the gum on our collective societal shoes – those people who live in the economic undercurrent, the feisty few who flip a middle finger to ethics and morals and all things holy in their primal urge to survive … and thrive.

DiCaprio is spectacular in the title role – completely reprehensible and absolutely lovable all at once. Scorsese surrounds his muse with a marvelous supporting cast: a wonderful Jonah Hill whose epic overbite and Sally Jessy Raphael glasses do nine-tenths of his acting work as DiCaprio’s partner in materialism/drug use/bamboozling; a perfectly subdued but completely compelling Rob Reiner as DiCaprio’s complicit/fretting papa; Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin as a charmingly oily Swiss banker; and exasperated, clever, relentless everyman Kyle Chandler as the g-man who finally brings Belfort to earth again.

Surprisingly, my favorite of this sparkling cast was Matthew McConaughey (really, I just don’t like the dude). He positively runs off with the film in a totally hysterical scene early on where he describes the Faustian bargain the young DiCaprio is about to strike, entering the raucous world of stock brokering on Wall Street. McConaughey sets the loopy tone that the following three hours will follow with a gonzo Bobby McFerrin-style vocal exercise shared over a two-martini lunch with his young charge. Mad Men meets Daffy Duck. I have no other way to describe this. It has to be seen.

This is a naughty movie for those naughty enough to wink at a naughty world that is pathetically preoccupied with cash and sex and stuff. So, go be naughty.

Damsels in distress? I don’t think so … Gravity and Blue Jasmine

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A few months ago, I decided to review a Miley Cyrus CD because I was being ornery about seeing either Captain Phillips or Gravity. Lord, I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved (and still love) Miley’s Bangerz (her delightful MTV Unplugged special last week being vindication of that earlier review) … but I was certainly wrong in my snooty dismissal of both Captain Phillips and Gravity.

Gravity is an art film in theme park ride clothing. The superb director Alfonso Cuaron (who helmed my beloved A Little Princess and Children of Men) gives us a woozy and claustrophobic take on deep space survival like nothing I’ve ever seen. (I caution anyone with a propensity for sea sickness from seeing the IMAX 3D version … unless you come prepared with a case of Dramamine.)

Cuaron takes the sweaty paranoia of Kubrick’s 2001 and ups the ante one-hundredfold. The concept is as absurd as can be: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts (!) on opposite ends of the skill spectrum, and, after runaway space debris shreds their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope upon which they are making repairs, they find themselves playing hopscotch across the star-field from American to Russian to Chinese space stations.

Try not to think about the set-up too much and just go with the exquisitely filmed, edited, and paced flow. Honestly, Clooney is the film’s weakest link – sometimes I wonder if his face cramps from holding those endearingly twinkly smug expressions all the time. He basically serves the thankless role of being Sandra Bullock’s “Jiminy Cricket in Space” offering wise counsel, always preternaturally calm despite all hell breaking loose every five minutes.

Bullock is fine as the protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone, having to carry 90% of the film on her own. I have to admit I wonder how much stronger the film might have been with an unknown in her role. I was hyper-conscious of her sheer Bullock-ness the whole time, especially the umpteenth time she squealed “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” in that trademark exasperated “aren’t I a regular joe?” manner she brings to every role.

Regardless, Gravity is an efficiently gripping marvel – a 90-minute Cast Away-in-space – exemplifying in crisp detail  that “if anything can go wrong it will.” Cuaron’s masterwork is a techno allegory on our ability as opportunistic animals to adapt and to evolve and to survive in the face of endless calamity.

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Speaking of endless calamity, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine also centers on one woman’s quest to thrive in a world hellbent on throwing roadblock upon roadblock in her path. Like some tilt-a-whirl mash-up of Blanche DuBois, Auntie Mame, and Courtney Love, Cate Blanchett in the title role rocks the house in Allen’s latest. She is amazing.

(She is, by all accounts, the Oscar front-runner for Best Actress this year … and rightly so. No one can touch her.)

I have often struggled with Allen’s films – they can feel half-baked, disjointed, and thrown-together. Not Blue Jasmine; like Bullets Over Broadway or Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen has a solid narrative here, trucking along with a surety of purpose and a compelling, tragic inevitability.

One can’t help but wonder if Allen is exorcising some personal familial demons with this one, perhaps serving penance for his well-documented patriarchal wrongs. And given the Mia Farrow camp’s very public reaction/meltdown of late, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Nonetheless, Blue Jasmine is spectacular filmmaking. Blanchett’s Jasmine is a clenched-jaw Manhattan socialite whose house-of-cards world collapses around her when her philandering, conniving Bernie Madoff-esque husband (a pleasantly subdued Alec Baldwin) commits suicide after being indicted for fraud. Jasmine moves into her sister’s shabby digs in San Francisco to reclaim some semblance of her former life (and her soul). Sally Hawkins is phenomenal as the trashy heart-of-gold sisterly counterpoint to Blanchett’s frayed-nerves pretension.

The film tracks back and forth between Blanchett’s current circumstances and the heartaches in the past that brought her there. Allen and Blanchett make a stellar team, giving us a wry, raw, and visceral treatise on gender politics and social warfare. Jasmine learns the hard way that money (and Xanax and vodka martinis) can’t buy happiness and that revenge (while sometimes essential) brings its own kind of karmic blowback.

Blanchett is a slow-burn supernova, bouncing corrosively off a stellar supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale as a comically emo Stanley Kowalski, Peter Sarsgaard as a twee Kennedy-wannabe, and Andrew Dice Clay (!) as Hawkins’ thuggishly wounded ex. But the movie is at all times Blanchett’s. She walks a phenomenal high-wire act, balancing heartbreak, disappointment, betrayal, arrogance, and abject fear, sometimes in a single line delivery. Hers is a performance for the record books, personifying our era’s raw neuroses, economic desperation, emotional materialism, and chemically induced numbness.

I think I’ll take Blanchett navigating a rotten life over Bullock navigating a collapsing space station any day…though both actors fabulously turn the tired cliche of the “damsel in distress” on its tired, simplistic, reductive noggin.