Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

11 January 2014

A Fight about The Wolf of Wall Street

Unlike our conversation about The Butler, in which we basically agreed with one another (although he made me smarter about the film than I was being), in this conversation about The Wolf of Wall Street, my friend Carlos and I are back to our usual habit of almost totally disagreeing with each other about a movie.
For me these conversations are always pleasurable, so I hope this is a fun read.
* * * * *
Carlos: I just saw the Wolf. Hoooooo.

Aaron: I'm going soon. Make me feel better about it than I do?

Carlos: I thought it was harrowing. Hilarious. Merciless and at times miserable. Unapologetic and ruthlessly joyous. It made me feel both great pride and great shame as an American. First, that whatever your feelings about the story and characters, it is a truly brilliantly made movie. And being that entertainment is our chief export, we've given the world something great. The great shame stems from the fact that we, as a country, allowed the events of the film to take place, and little has changed. I'm still unpacking it all.

Aaron: Oooooo. Thanks. This makes me feel good about it.

Carlos: Also it makes me wish I could try quaaludes.

Aaron: Haha. I've always wished that.

Carlos: But make sure you go in with the proper reservations and expectations for any post-Gangs-of-New-York Scorsese movie.

Aaron: Fear not. I always have reservations about a Scorsese picture.

Carlos: Because... you know... Hugo.

Aaron: The worst.

Carlos: Worst.
* * * * *

Carlos: So I take it you loved Wolf of Wall Street?

Aaron: No. Thank. You.

Carlos: Hahahahaha.

Aaron: But thanks for alleviating the dread at the top.

Carlos: Well, you shoulda known better if I liked it that much. It is a monument to violent excess, chiefly in execution.

Aaron: Yes, yes yes. But one might've enjoyed oneself. So is La Dolce Vita but that movie comes with a lot of pleasure and then a sucker punch.

Carlos: The sucker punch for me, in the grand scheme of things, is that this man was never fully held accountable for his actions. The last shot crystallized it for me. 

Aaron: But I was so bored by the time we got there. So bored.

God Bless America
Carlos: And the fact that the real Jordan Belfort was the one who introduced movie Belfort at the end. The implications of the film were more terrifying to me than 90% of horror movies. But it is long. And has plenty of repeat beats.

Aaron: I know it is totally cliché (and apropos of the way that people speak about pornography: it's not that it's porn, it's that it's bad art) but I honestly feel as though it isn't that I object to the film's outrageous content – to be fair to Scorsese & co. I spent a fair share of the film laughing at the jokes – but it was all just too much. There was too much! And as you say, plenty of repeat beats. Why did he have to keep yelling into that microphone? And what was the point of repeating his betrayal of his friends? Did we need to watch it twice? I understand the film is about excess. Believe me, I get that. But when you have a helipad on your yacht, and then your main character points out twice that there is a helipad on your yacht (not to mention that I can see with my own eyes that he has a helipad on his yacht, since Rodrigo Prieto's camera is pointed directly at the thing), this is not excess, this is tedium.

Carlos: For me, it was a monument of violent excess both in subject and technical execution. For all these characters too much isn't enough. So that's why we have to hear about his stupid helicopter and hot wife and giant house and and and and.... So on and so forth. I acknowledge the repeated beats, but the didn't really faze me. I thought the pacing was so strong that despite the length I never once found myself bored. Which is where I think you and I differ the most.

Mr. McConaughey
Aaron: The pacing was actually good. And stuff did just keep happening. But the things that happened were actually repetitive. You know what I think I needed? I think I needed it to get actually worse. When you start off smoking crack, when the first moment you get rich you spend $3,000 – or whatever it is – on side dishes, there really isn't anywhere else to go. Everything else is just another version of throwing people at giant targets. The whole film is that: excess after excess, but they are all the same, really.

Let me say the things I liked about it. The first ten minutes with Matthew McConaughey (who was absolutely superb) really articulated how the whole thing worked. As a mentor to Belfort, he made sense of the movie: explained how the actual money works (for those who don't understand the materiality of the stock market) and also articulated (it seemed to me) a clear moral center for the film.

Carlos: McConaughey was absolutely my favorite part of the movie. It was, I thought, really understated and subtly fierce. Like, all we got was the glimpse of the tip of the iceberg, but underneath was this coiled beast of finance. I also appreciated that after McConaughey gave us the rundown of how it all works, Jordan never had to again. Even if he was trying something new, he would spare us the explanation because frankly, it didn't matter. He did it. He got away (for a while) with it. And he made a shit-ton of cash.

Aaron: I also loved the sequence where Belfort finally quits Oakmont (or whatever his firm is called). All of that spontaneous crying from the woman in the Chanel suit and the young stockbrokers: hilarious. I am not sure what the point of it was, but it was quite funny.

Carlos: The quitting sequence was one of the best, and I love that it brought things back to the lessons he learned from McConaughey, down to the weird chest-slamming song. I don't really know how to defend the repetetive beats except to say that they just worked for me, in the same way that Spring Breakers' repeat beats and phrases worked for me. It all felt in keeping with the mise en scène. 

Mr. Hill and his chompers
Can we diverge a bit and talk performances? I gotta say, I hate Jonah Hill. Granted, I didn't see Moneyball because if there are two things I don't give two shits about it's sportsball of any type and math in service of sportsball of any type.

Aaron: Haha. So you hated Jonah Hill in this too?

Carlos: Yes and no. I thought that his performance was cretinous, disgusting, and vile. But that all felt in keeping with the character himself. So this movie allowed me to still hate Jonah Hill but acknowledge that he was well cast in this role. But those teeth. I couldn't get over them. I just wanted to kick them right in. Aside from Jon Bernthal all the cronies sort of disappeared into one another. Which maybe was the point. Well and maybe Rugrat. But I thought that Margot Robbie was just great. And maybe the only remotely sympathetic person in this film besides Belfort's first wife.

Aaron: I really liked Margot Robbie, too. Although, I am not sure how sympathetic she was as a character. She was on the hustle, too, of course. I am so with you on Jonah Hill's teeth. They drove me insane.

Carlos: Like I said: remotely sympathetic. Maybe this is why this movie... not maybe... This is why this movie is so difficult for a lot of people. There really is no one to root for. At all. And if you're rooting for Jordan you're probably an MBA who read Rand in high school and never grew out of it.

Mr. DiCaprio, Ms. Robbie, and Mr. Bernthal
Aaron: Actually, one of my favorite moments from the film is the interplay between DiCaprio and Hill during the sequence where they make fun of the dad and are joking with one another about spending all that money on hookers and sides. The improvisation worked for me there. It was silly and funny and worked.

 Carlos: Oh yes. Most scenes with Reiner were hilarious. That was a really fun casting choice. I mean, I thought the whole thing was really well cast.

Aaron: And Joanna Lumley and Jean Dujardin too. Great casting. But there was so much cartooning! Okay, like, for example. We did not need the scene when the two Roccos get to stare at the Duchess's vagina. It serves no purpose – either for the alleged theme of excess or for plot.

Ms. Lumley with Mr. DiCaprio
Carlos: I'll agree that it may just be too much. But I do think it serves a purpose. At that point Jordan is sober. And aside from the hooker dominatrix (which in the grand scheme of things is really only a minor offense) that scene serves to show us that Jordan, even without the aid of drugs and alcohol, is just as depraved, desperate for attention, and 100% self serving. So let me touch on that hooker thing real fast.

Aaron: Sigh. Okay. But, like, I got that from the film's first act.

Carlos: Well it had been two hours so maybe some of the audience needed a reminder.

Aaron: I didn't. But go ahead with the hooker thing.

Carlos: You, sir, are smarter than the average bear.

Aaron: I am not a bear.

Carlos: Otter. Wolf.

Aaron: Witty.

Carlos: But I digress. Hookers.

So at that point, I think, at least I was feeling, that bangin' hookers ain't no thang. His other offenses both against the country, and his family waaaaaay overshadowed his sex addiction. So that one in particular was serving to show us that because of his voracious appetite not being satiated by his drugs of choice he had to move on to more extreme sources of pleasure. Though that's really all subjective. I think getting whipped a bit and a candle shoved up your ass are small potatoes compared to the mountains of drugs and other debauchery he indulged in. So what I guess I'm getting at is that that scene didn't accomplish what I thought it would.

He's the king of the world.
Aaron: Am I simply desensitized to queer sexual behavior? I didn't think anything of that whatsoever.

Carlos: Nail on the head. But I think it would for people less... jaded, shall we say?

Aaron: Less... practiced?

Carlos: Ha. Yes.

Aaron: But you are agreeing with me now, Carlos.

Carlos: Yes, it just took a roundabout path. Look: for all its warts, Wolf of Wall Street is still among my top three movie going experiences of the year. Pacific Rim still wins out. Would I watch Wolf again anytime soon? Doubtful. From a logistical standpoint, who has that kind of time? The more I think about that movie the sadder I become, and not because I like it less on further reflection. I think it really crystallized a time and place in American culture where we have, as a nation, failed and continue to fail. What's saddest to me is that we even have to make a movie about this. I guess what it all boils down to for me is that I'm glad it's there. But I wish it wasn't.

Aaron: This is sort of how I feel about Gangs of New York.

Carlos: Oof.