Tuesday, 15 April 2014

We watch The Wolf of Wall Street

With nothing else on television last night, Greg and I  decided to use the On Demand feature in our cable package for the first time. We chose The Wolf of Wall Street figuring for $5.99 we could turn off the television and go back to reading our books, and not have wasted much time, money or energy if we were too shocked and appalled to watch very long.

Much as I hate to admit it, I found it very funny. What on earth is wrong with me? It’s raunchy beyond belief (well my belief, anyway), misogynistic, violent, and laden with scenes of illicit drug-taking. The so-called hero — convicted swindler, money-launderer and erstwhile stockbroker Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo di Caprio — gets away with it, more or less. He does have to spend a few months in an upscale prison post-conviction, playing tennis a good deal of the time, poor fellow, before reinventing himself as a motivational speaker.

This movie, directed by Martin Scorcese,  reminded me of Pulp Fiction, Borat and Catch Me if You Can (where Leonardo di Caprio was directed by Steven Spielberg). There is even a hint of A Fish Called Wanda both in the goldfish swallowing scene and in the unholy desire of this audience of two to see what the villains would get up to next. These movies involve trickster figures: mischievous, rascally, really bad characters devoid of guilt, shame or restraint.  Their behaviour is sent up by the movie-makers almost to the point of farce.  Black humour abounds.

I was expecting a much darker movie along the lines of No Country for Old Men (the character played by Javier Bardem is terrifyingly wolfish) or of Glengarry Glen Ross, which portrays the cut-throat, amoral aspect of sales as very definitely unfunny.  Most of the dark aspects in The Wolf of Wall Street  are either alluded to only briefly (the bathtub suicide) or occur to other unlikeable characters (the butler hung over the balcony). You know that if the butler had fallen, it wouldn’t have been intentional, but just a big mistake. It was cartoonish.

The only time in the movie I felt a quiver of genuine fear and misgiving occurred when, after a fight with his wife,  Belfort kidnapped his own daughter, placed her in his car and tore out of the garage in reverse, only to hit a tree in the front yard. He was stopped before too much damage was done. Shades of Tiger Williams and his misadventures, sexual and automotive.

Another reason I liked this movie was that having spent four unenjoyable years in insurance sales in the late 80s, I was reminded all too vividly of learning the art of the sales pitch. It’s not about the product: it’s all about the buyer and motivating their desire. I loved the contrast in the two scenes about the pen. Those Australians—or were they New Zealanders? — attending the motivation seminar at the end of the movie sure have a lot to learn.

When you watch the stock brokers in action in this film, you are given a sense that they swindled so egregiously well  because their victims were as greedy as they were for easy money. Not a lot of sympathy is extended to them.
This was more of a caper movie than a particularly serious reflection about greed, self-promotion and moral decay.  If you want a more sobering look at Wall Street, watch Margin Call (2011) written and directed by J. C. Chandor. Or remember Renata Ford's expression when Rob Ford apologized on camera for his comments about his sexual preferences and drug use. No stiletto heel in the face there. That  news conference was not funny in the least.