Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Great Wolf of Wall Street (or Chicanery is the Father of Invention)

Leonardo DiCaprio has had a big year. In spring he starred in Baz Luhrmann’s reimagining of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby. Now he’s playing the title character in Martin Scorsese’s latest, The Wolf of Wall Street. The roles are hardly identical, but there are some fascinating areas of overlap.

Starting out as a non-descript North Dakotan lacking both fame and fortune, Fitzgerald’s James Gatz  reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, a fabulously wealthy financier who reigns over a palatial spread on Long Island. When it comes to money, he seems to have the Midas touch, but his fancy cars and fancier parties (not to mention that pile of exquisite shirts) exist chiefly to impress Daisy, the lost love of his youth. He’s apparently done his share of underhanded deals, but at base he’s a thoroughgoing romantic. Money, for him, is simply a way to get the girl.

In The Wolf of Wall Street, adapted (apparently with a fair degree of accuracy) from the memoirs of stock-market hustler Jordan Belfort, money itself is the prize, and not simply the means to an end. Money buys girls (lots of them), as well as booze, drugs, costly toys, and -- above all -- power. I see the Jordan Belfort character as someone who gets high on living life at the expense of others. To feed his various urges, he is in a constant state of self-invention, which is why he’s so brilliant on the telephone, telling suckers exactly what they want to hear.

Another current movie about re-invention of the illicit kind is of course American Hustle. David O. Russell’s darkly funny film, loosely based on the Abscam Scandal of the 1980s, resembles The Wolf of Wall Street in that it is all about the pleasures and the profits that come from conning the unwary. I can’t resist seeing this movie’s stellar cast as engaged in personal self-inventions onscreen. Christian Bale (a wiry Bostonian in Russell’s The Fighter) metamorphoses here into a chubby New Yawker with an elaborate comb-over. The wholesome, winsome Amy Adams turns into a sexpot (boy, do her necklines plunge!) of uncertain nationality. Bradley Cooper, once People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, appears in American Hustle as a goofy FBI agent with a bad perm. The protean Jennifer Lawrence is lightyears removed from her tough-girl role as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. And, in a surprise cameo, one of Hollywood’s greatest actors does something completely unexpected.

If The Wolf of Wall Street is compared to American Hustle, it seems far less comic, and far more ferocious.  Those who’ve seen both films will understand what I mean when I say that Russell’s film is all about hair, and Scorsese’s is all about skin. I appreciated them both, but give the nod to The Wolf of Wall Street because of Scorsese’s absolute mastery of the film medium. I understand why his work here is controversial, but can’t grasp why some feel he’s glamorizing wrongdoing. By the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio’s character is clearly not having fun. Why can’t people see that this is, at base, a morality tale?

It is also a film that’s three hours long. Though I didn’t feel anything was extraneous, there’s no question that 180 minutes is a lengthy sit. That’s why a new app highlighted in the L.A. Times may have its uses. Www.RunPee.com advises the conscientious moviegoer of the best time to take a bathroom break, then tells you what you missed. For us aging Baby Boomers at the multiplex, this might be just the ticket.


  1. What a hilarious app! I want to see American Hustle for sure - I will probably check out The Wolf down the road sometime. I'm with you in not understanding how people are finding the movie a glamorization - from the trailers alone I DESPISE the DeCaprio and Hill characters and will spend every second of the three hours waiting for the house of cards to fall.

  2. Let me know, Mr. C, if you try out the app -- though I don't think I'd like to sit in a movie theatre full of people busy responding to their phones.