Friday, January 24, 2014

Stocks, Bonds and Pratfalls

The Wolf of Wall Street is a drug comedy.  Forget the fact that the film involves stock fraud.  Forget the fact that the film is based on a true story.  Forget the fact that the film was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese, who the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated in its Best Director category seven times.  The Wolf of Wall Street is Cheech and Chong Rip Off Investors.  I should point out that the self-proclaimed "wolf" does not ply his sleazy practices on Wall Street, but literal titles are not important when it comes to dopey comedies.  Consider that Abbott and Costello never actually make it to Mars in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953).

There's not much to this story of crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who is played with demonic glee by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Belfort defrauded investors, snorted a vast amount of cocaine, and had sex with countless prostitutes.  The film numbs viewers with relentless debauchery throughout its running time of 180 minutes.  Scorsese devotes more time to telling Belfort's story than he previously devoted to the story of Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004).  More time is devoted to Belfort than was devoted to the story of Jesus Christ in King of Kings (1961) or the story of Abraham Lincoln's slavery-snuffing administration in Lincoln (2012).  The Wolf of Wall Street is only 11 minutes shorter than Gandhi (1982).  You know Gandhi, right?  He is just the guy who used nonviolent civil disobedience to lead India to independence.  He is just the guy who inspired a worldwide civil rights movement.  Belfort is an idiot who enjoyed snorting cocaine off a hooker's ass.  What justifies this epic of excess and stupidity?

Interestingly, DiCaprio gets to crash an aircraft in both The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street.  The crash in The Aviator is gripping and tragic.  The drunken crash in The Wolf of Wall Street is nothing more than juvenile.  It makes crashing an aircraft look like fun.  Scorsese has argued against criticism that the film was made for 14-year-olds, but this scene fails to make that case for him.  

The film reminds me of a Randy Newman song called "It's Money that I Love."  Here is a sample of the lyrics:

They say that money
Can't buy love in this world
But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine
And a sixteen-year old girl
And a great big long limousine
On a hot September night
Now that may not be love
But it is all right

The song provides the same message as The Wolf of Wall Street, but it does it in three minutes rather than three hours.

FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) pursues Belfort and his partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), as doggedly as Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach, Jr.) pursued Cheech and Chong in Up in Smoke (1978).  Belfort spent 22 months in a country club prison, where a fellow inmate persuaded him to write his Wolf of Wall Street memoir.  That fellow inmate was Tommy Chong, who knows a funny drug story when he hears it.  A big difference between a Cheech and Chong film and The Wolf of Wall Street is that cannabis joints went up smoke in the former film and people's life savings went up in smoke in the latter film.

I have found that I am not alone in my thinking.  The A.V. Club staff called The Wolf of Wall Street "a drug comedy in financial crime drag."  This may be the reason that industry insiders do not expect the film to be taken seriously by Academy voters.

The scene from the film that people are most talking about features DiCaprio zonked out on Quaaludes.  The timing of Quaalude episode could not be worse as DiCaprio learns that his partner is about to unknowingly give away incriminating information to a banking associate on a tapped phone line.  Though he is barely able to function in his drug-addled state, he has to speed off in his Ferrari Testarossa to stop his partner from saying something that both of them will regret.   

This is a comedy routine that can be traced back to the early days of the British music hall.  The routine typically involved a wealthy man drunkenly stumbling home after a night of revelry.  Of course, the inevitable problem with merrymaking at a club or bar is that the person has to get home afterwards.  The most common trait of the various versions of the routine was the comedian grappling with an inanimate object.  A popular version of the sketch centered on a comedian getting tangled up with a lamppost as he put on his jacket. 

Early film comedians made extensive use of this premise.  Bad (K)Night (1902), a comedy produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph, involves a man coming home drunk and mistaking a suit of armor for a person.  Later, similar routines were performed by a number of popular comedians, including Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Max Linder, Roscoe Arbuckle and Lige Conley.

DiCaprio grapples with a very grand inanimate object - that white 1988 Ferrari Testarossa.  The Ferrari/Quaaludes scene was named one of the best scenes of the year by the A.V. Club staff.  This was their evaluation: "The scene. . . is a go-for-broke piece of bizarre slapstick comedy, with Belfort trying to squirm and writhe his way out of a country club. . . It’s the pièce de résistance of DiCaprio’s gonzo performance.   The scene climaxes with an interminably long, unbroken shot of Belfort trying to open his car’s butterfly doors using only his feet."  Colin Covert, Star Tribune critic, tweeted, "DiCaprio opening his Ferrari door with his foot in Wolf of Wall Street is the top comic moment of 2013."  Bob Grimm, Reno News Review critic, wrote, "With this film, [DiCaprio] proves he’s a physical actor of phenomenal talent. . . DiCaprio rivals the likes of Steve Martin and Charlie Chaplin in his ability to pull off physical comedy.  What he does with a Ferrari car door and his leg must be seen to be believed." 

So, I am not the only one to make the connection between DiCaprio and Chaplin.  Chaplin famously performed the routine in One A.M. (1916).  An intertitle introduces Chaplin as a "tipsy playboy."  Chaplin's only plan after paying a cab driver for getting him home is to enter his home, take off his suit, and climb into bed, but he finds in the process that he must contend with various objects, including a fishbowl, a grandfather's clock, a seltzer bottle, a tiger skin rug, a rotating table and a Murphy bed.  A sober man will find that these devices have been designed for convenient use, but a drunken man will get his foot caught in the fishbowl, get hit in the head by the clock's pendulum, get soaked by the seltzer bottle, get frightened by the tiger skin rug, get spun in circles atop the rotating table and get knocked to the ground by the Murphy bed.  Let's look at a clip.  Unlike DiCaprio, who has trouble getting into a car, Chaplin has trouble getting out of a car.

Alcohol addles the brain, slows the reflexes, and upsets coordination.  Quaaludes mess up a person much worse.  These little oval-shaped white pills suppress the central nervous system, reducing muscle tension, causing motor control circuitry in the brain to malfunction, and ultimately inhibiting the body's mobility.  In other words, a person who abuses his body with this sort of intoxicant could not be a bigger fool.

Jim Carrey performed essentially the same routine (and performed it very well) in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995).  Carrey's Ace Ventura is desperately fleeing tribesmen of the savage Watchootoo tribe, but he is struck by a number of poison darts and finds himself quickly losing muscle control.  Like DiCaprio, he finds that he is unable to move his arms or legs and he is unable to produce intelligible speech.  The poison dart chase was a spoof of a scene from Papillon (1973).  It was one of the great moments of Carrey's career.  To be frank, DiCaprio's efforts are not at all gonzo by comparison.

The biggest problem with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is a dumb, silly comedy about a subject that is not at all funny.  Scorsese sacrifices any sense of human decency when he makes it seem that stealing from investors is the most fun that a human being can possibly have.  It may be the most irresponsible, offensive and immoral film ever made by a major director.  Complain all that you want about The Birth of a Nation (1915), the fact remains that Scorsese's shameless recruitment film for future Wall Street crooks is far more inflammatory.

Films have the power to affect behavior.  Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) influenced John Hinkley Jr. to stalk President Ronald Reagan and fire six shots into a crowd in an attempt to assassinate our commander-in-chief.  Jordan Belfort admits that he was inspired to engage in financial shenanigans by Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987).

It is harmless fun to see Chaplin's tipsy playboy get his foot caught in a fish bowl, but nothing is harmless about the rampant stupidity depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street.

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