08 February 2014

Wolf of Wall Street

I can't really make up my mind about this movie. It's definitely thought-provoking. I wouldn't be surprised if Leo finally gets his Oscar -- he does a great job. Though I will say, sure the guy has a baby face, but I'm sorry, 22 year olds don't have those kinds of lines on their foreheads. That distracted the hell out of me. But whatever. Jonah Hill is good, but the Oscar nomination is overdoing it, if you ask me. But to get to the point: during the intermission (ah, the joys of the cinema experience in Turkey!), my friend and I were remarking that the movie felt totally soul-less. We found ourselves not really caring what happened to the character -- would he get caught? Would he get away with it? Would his crazy drug-addled lifestyle have horrific consequences?

By the end of the movie, I'd decided that its sense of detachment is crucial to its success. If it had in any way pushed me towards a specific emotional reaction, be it sympathy or outrage, I would have bridled, but the flatness of the film allows you to passively take in the completely disgusting scenes before you with some measure of amusement and interest. You feel somehow insulated from it. And indeed, there are some completely hilarious moments (though also some very unpleasant ones, though they are typically seen from afar -- when Leo slaps his wife, for instance, you view the scene from the end of a hallway. You are literally distanced from it, and it makes a huge difference in its emotional impact.). Actually, it reminded me of the discussions about alcoholism in movies that were happening (well, maybe only on NPR) when Arthur came out, about how it used to be ok to have lovable, or at least comical, scenes of substance abuse in movies. For some reason, it is totally hilarious when DiCaprio is so bombed on 'ludes that he enters into what he calls "the palsy stage." This is again making me wish I'd posted about Flight, by the way, which has a similarly gleeful portrayal of drug abuse, though it balances it with an unbelievably heavy-handed (and deeply hypocritical) moralizing message.

Anyways, the real point of The Wolf of Wall Street is, of course, the debauched excesses of untrammeled Wall Street living. This is where the morality of the film is so bizarrely ambiguous. We never see the victims of the protagonist's frauds, and they're only briefly alluded to. On the other hand, it occasionally seems that perhaps we are meant to share his self-pity; a fairly offensive notion. It isn't entirely clear whether we are to be repulsed by the scenes of utter hedonism, or somewhat envious of them. Is the take-away point here that the problem with Wall Street schemes is that they don't even make the perpetrators happy? Because the film is largely lacking in any sense of social responsibility.

But of course, maybe that's what the audience is meant to provide. In this regard, what I find perhaps most intriguing about the film is the way in which it is aggressively dated in the past. Occasionally we get scenes of tv footage, for instance, and it is so grainy and obviously outmoded, that you're jarred into remembering that this is not happening in the present. What really drives this effect home is the soundtrack, which is insistently grounded in the 90s, to an almost surreal extent. People dance to Baby's Got Back at a wedding; the Lemonheads' cover of Mrs Robinson plays at one point, and in the most climactic example, a scene on the yacht is set to a Foo Fighters track. Yes, it's thematically appropriate ("gotta promise not to stop when I say when"), but it's also rather charmingly dated. Now, you ask yourself, why on earth would a film that is so clearly timely and related to the present moment of backlash against Wall Street and luxury living* so relentlessly remind you that it is NOT talking about the present? My theory is: because it really isn't. What this movie quietly wants you to realize, I suggest, is that it is obsolete. What looks like outrageous excess and absurd amounts of money is simply laughable in comparison to the kinds of profits those types of people are making nowadays. Although Leo's world looks like another planet to us, one of unimaginable, unfathomable extravagance, it is but the tip of the iceberg. We literally cannot imagine the opulence and astonishing greed and power of comparable characters in our own time.

Or maybe I'm giving the movie too much credit. Maybe I'm projecting all my thinking about income inequality and cinematic glorification of opulence onto this film, and it's much less interesting than I think. Maybe its emotional flatness is a failure rather than an intentional decision. At three hours, it definitely feels self-indulgent, though on the other hand, I'm not sure that I'd know what, if anything, to cut. Whenever you start to think, ok, I see where this is going, some new dynamic emerges; the film makes an odd move in a totally unexpected direction, illuminating some entirely different aspect of the interactions between the characters. It's actually quite remarkable. So in the grand scheme of things, yes it's worth seeing, and on the big screen, for the full effect. I think you need total immersion in this world in order to suspend your sense of repulsion -- not entirely; just enough to sit through the damn thing.

*On a sidenote, I was really intrigued by all the anger at the Maserati commercial during the Superbowl (most obvious example, that is maybe cheating as far as making the point because it's so half-assed). Because as far as I can tell, the critique isn't so much about the commercial itself, as about the fact that they had the nerve to air a commercial for a luxury car that 99% of the audience could not afford. And to top it off, they didn't make it look like the typical commercial for an absurdly luxurious item: the galling thing, it seems, is that they made it look just like any other commercial. Even worse, they used an aesthetic pulled directly from a popular film (Beasts of the Southern Wild) about poor people. If you're going to advertise luxury cars -- and you probably shouldn't, during the Super Bowl, seems to be the sentiment, at least not if they're that luxurious -- then at least have the decency to let us know from the jump that you're telling us about something we can never have! You jerks! What?

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