Thursday, May 21, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Wolf of Wall Street

No Rolling Stones tracks during this one!
Every Throwback Thursday, I randomly pull out from my desk cabinet--with my eyes closed--a movie ticket I saved. Then I discuss the movie on the ticket and maybe a little bit of its score, which might be now streaming on AFOS.

When many film directors reach their 60s or 70s and continue to direct, they tend to lose their spark. They're simply no longer the inventive or energetic filmmakers we used to know from their earlier work. Even the most beloved late-night hosts get this way too. In a 2012 WNYC interview, David Letterman, who retired from the late-night airwaves, admitted that one of the differences between his period at NBC, where he hosted two groundbreaking and anarchic talk shows, and the slightly less adventurous Late Show on CBS was simply that "I'm 65; I don't have the energy I had when I was 35."

As for directors as they age, they become either more hackneyed and sentimental or more out-of-touch and complacent--so their later films suffer as a result, and for fans of the original Star Wars trilogy, the worst example of this was the pointless and woodenly acted (except for in the case of Ewan McGregor) Star Wars prequels George Lucas directed after a 22-year hiatus from the director's chair. As the now-defunct Stylus magazine points out in a depressing 2007 overview of bold '70s filmmakers who had trouble sustaining their hot streak after their first few films, "Boldness and originality becomes [sic] harder to achieve as time moves on and business interests close in."

Another example of a distinctive director losing his spark is the late Billy Wilder. Although Wilder remained his usual sharp-witted self in interviews (man, I really ought to check out Cameron Crowe's Conversations with Wilder from the public library one of these days), his movies towards the end of his career aren't as fondly remembered as earlier Wilder masterpieces like Double Indemnity or Some Like It Hot. You don't exactly see cineastes jumping for joy over Buddy Buddy.

But there are a couple of recent exceptions to the theory that as filmmakers get older, they lose their edge. George Miller, who's now 70, was in his late 60s when he shot this summer's incredible Mad Max: Fury Road, and Martin Scorsese was 70 when he directed The Wolf of Wall Street, my favorite of the five films Scorsese has made with Leonardo DiCaprio so far.

'Must... insert... Rolling Stones track during husband-taunting scene,' thinks Scorsese to himself.

Scorsese's invaluable and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker--who, together with Scorsese, remarkably whittled down four hours' worth of largely improvised material between DiCaprio and the rest of The Wolf of Wall Street's ensemble cast to 179 minutes--once said to Variety, "Marty's movies are so unusual. He doesn't repeat himself, so [the studios] don't know what to expect." Eh, actually, Scorsese's repeated himself--existing song-wise, that is. His umpteenth use of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" in The Departed was a sign of a filmmaker who needed to take a break for a while from hitting repeat on Let It Bleed tracks on his iPod.

But otherwise, Schoonmaker's right. Scorsese's films have never had a problem of being interchangeable (he revisits motifs and themes like greed, media attention, addiction or religious guilt but is somehow able to do so without becoming repetitive and derivative), whereas many of his filmmaking peers have ended up making the same film three or four times--another example of when directors show their age. "Gangs of New York is so different from The Aviator, which was so different from The Departed or Age of Innocence or Kundun," said Schoonmaker to HitFix. And after Scorsese directed 2011's Hugo, he followed up his first family film--as well as one of his least controversial works, unless you're a stickler for accuracy in terms of how the Eiffel Tower gets depicted on film--with perhaps his most sexually explicit film to date, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Favorite movie newspaper or magazine headline: 'Boy Trapped In Refrigerator Eats Own Foot' from Airplane!

Adapted from the memoirs of former stockbroker and former cokehead Jordan Belfort by screenwriter Terence Winter (who created and showran Boardwalk Empire, which Scorsese co-produced), the 2013 Scorsese flick reunited the New York filmmaker with an old pal: controversy. Many haters of the film felt it glorified the scummy and misogynist behavior of Belfort the white-collar criminal and his cronies at the Wall Street firm Stratton Oakmont. Other haters--particularly audience members who are about as old as Scorsese or older than him--found the amount of debauchery on display in the film to be excessive. They wished The Wolf of Wall Street contained less debauchery, even after Scorsese already kept the film from getting stamped with a financially risky NC-17 by making a few additional edits, like turning to Rob Legato, the Hugo visual FX wizard whom I'll always remember for giving away on Reading Rainbow the FX magicians' secret of how he filmed the Star Trek: The Next Generation transporter beam FX (hint: glitter stirred in a glass of water), and his team to digitally insert an Eyes Wide Shut-style chair as a visual barricade for a gay orgy scene.

But the excessiveness makes perfect sense in The Wolf of Wall Street: it's a film about hedonistic Wall Street culture and all its emptiness (as well as its enticing qualities), and it would have been inane to depict that culture in a watered-down, Hallmark Channel-friendly way. In the GQ blog post "Olds Heckle The Wolf of Wall Street for Being Too Awesome," Scott Christian nicely criticized the olds and their disgust with Scorsese's focus this time on sex--instead of the usual GoodFellas-style violence he's most known for--when he said, "He's not some pervy old man, he's actually trying to show us how fractured and ugly these characters are... What is shocking is that people are so outraged by a bit of T&A but not by violence. Of course, that's nothing new."

The Wolf of Wall Street is neither a pervy old man's movie nor the shrill cinematic equivalent of an old man shouting at millennials to get off his lawn, which was basically what Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom was. Scorsese said repeatedly in interviews that he made The Wolf of Wall Street as an expression of his own frustration with how materialism has become a religion in the last 35 years--no wonder Scorsese staged Belfort's office pep talks to his employees as if they're revival meetings--but Scorsese has done something clever with that frustration. The easy way to approach anger over economic inequality and the swindling of ordinary working folk is to turn it into a solemn movie about the Way America Ought to Be, But America's Too Broken and We'll Never Be Able to Fix It. The problem with that kind of movie is that it's been done to death, and it's boring as hell.

Fortunately, Scorsese doesn't do things the easy way. That's why we still love him, even after he stumbles and makes an intermittently interesting misfire like Gangs of New York or an unwatchable film like New York, New York (I still haven't watched that one). In The Wolf of Wall Street, he's as adventurous a filmmaker as he was when he made The King of Comedy or GoodFellas. Instead of the solemn post-Occupy movie about economic inequality we all expected, Scorsese did something more challenging and strange: he made a frat-house comedy out of it, with Kyle Chandler as the stuffy dean, except he's an FBI agent, and because Chandler's playing this Fed with the same subtle touches he brought to Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights, there isn't a single ounce of mustache-twirling, shaking-a-fist-at-the-heavens-over-his-infuriating-adversary cartoonishness in his performance. My favorite sequence in The Wolf of Wall Street--right above even the quaalude-related slapstick with DiCaprio and Jonah Hill or Scorsese's trademark hyperkinetic moments like his dazzling use of Jimmy Castor's "Hey Leroy, Your Mama's Callin' You"--is Chandler's eight-minute conversation on a boat with DiCaprio, where Scorsese takes a breather from the hyperkinetic antics and beautifully builds tension as these two alpha males size each other up and gradually square off.

"But Belfort's a bad guy! He even views himself as a Bond villain! What's so funny about all the suffering the working class experienced due to his crimes? It's wrong! By laughing with the film, you're all joining in on endorsing Belfort's brand of evil!," said everyone who forgot that Scorsese thrives on both moral ambiguity and narratives--like The Wolf of Wall Street's--that don't punish repellent characters whom many in the audience want to see punished. This is the same director who ended Taxi Driver with Travis Bickle's bloodbath turning him into a media darling and then ended the eerily prescient King of Comedy with the repellent Rupert Pupkin becoming a media darling as well.

A lesser filmmaker would rain down judgment on Travis like the rain Travis envisions himself washing all the scum off the streets with, or he'd make Rupert and Belfort--a real-life figure, unlike Travis or Rupert, by the way, and he even has a cameo at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street--experience a personality change and become remorseful after their short prison time. But not Scorsese. He wants to sit back, let the audience judge Travis/Rupert/Jordan for themselves and see what happens. If many in the audience squirm over their behavior and the repercussions, that's great. If others view them as their hero or spirit animal--like how several Homer Simpsons out there cheered The Wolf of Wall Street on as if it's School of Hard Knockers, featuring Jonah Hill as Nerdlinger and a full-frontal Margot Robbie, to the dismay of those who completely sympathize with Belfort's victims--that's great too. It's weird but great. As for a man named John Hinckley...

Michael Kang, the Asian American indie filmmaker behind the great coming-of-age comedy The Motel and the not-as-great but equally intriguing crime thriller West 32nd, once argued that Scorsese is actually far too judgmental about Belfort and the Stratton crew in The Wolf of Wall Street, and he let his anger over their (and others') pursuit of materialism distance himself too much from them, so the result is all these characters Kang finds to be one-note. "One piece of the puzzle that is so important to GoodFellas' success was completely absent from Wolf of Wall Street. That element is a soul," wrote Kang. He added, "In Wolf of Wall Street, there is not a single scene that matches the nuance of emotional depth that GoodFellas has." It's an interesting argument, but I'd like to know what Kang thinks of The King of Comedy--which he briefly cited as an almost-as-great-as-GoodFellas Scorsese/De Niro flick in the blog post--because the soullessness he found to be flawed about The Wolf of Wall Street is all over The King of Comedy as well, and like in the 2013 film, that soullessness is there for a reason.

Oh, the heart attack Mad Max would have if he found out a black guy is now playing his favorite white TV hero.

Rupert is a soulless character who's all artifice. He's a crazed fan who, off-screen and long before the start of the movie, completely remade himself into the image of a typical guest comedian on The Jerry Langford Show. Rupert never shuts off that persona and is always on, even when he's alone in his basement, pretending to chill with Liza Minnelli and Jerry, and that 24/7 soullessness is precisely what's, to borrow the words of the GQ blog post about the olds, fractured and ugly about that character. He looks like Vicki from Small Wonder, Data from Star Trek or Cameron from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles whenever they would imitate emotional human behavior, and their imitations would be totally off-putting and creepy. Rewatch The King of Comedy one of these days, and you'll find yourself thinking that someone should run a Turing test on Rupert.

Belfort is a soulless Scorsese character in the mold of Rupert. He remakes himself into the image of Matthew McConaughey's Mark Hanna and adopts Hanna's humming and chest-beating ritual (Belfort turns Hanna's ritual, known as "The Money Chant" in the music credits section at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, into his Wall Street firm's battle cry), but unlike The King of Comedy, we get to see the moments when Belfort transforms into Hanna. DiCaprio excellently shows the wheels turning in this younger Belfort's head as he absorbs broker advice from Hanna, who's basically the snake in the garden who tempts Adam, and non-verbally decides that he will become this snake. You can see the soul disappearing from Belfort in that power lunch scene (a later scene with Spike Jonze as a Long Island broker--he's the one who inspires Belfort to scam working-class schmucks out of their money--completes his transformation). We've all been there--we've all sized up an older and more experienced figure who's giving us unusual advice and we're wondering if he or she is for real--and it's the most relatable moment in the movie, before the chaos, the loud alpha-male posturing, the debauchery, the lavishness, the bling, the quaalude trips and the soullessness all take over. That's one moment of emotional depth and nuance Kang thinks is missing from The Wolf of Wall Street.

Another bit of emotional depth and nuance is embodied by Joanna Lumley as Emma, the British aunt of Belfort's second wife Naomi. The brilliance of Lumley's way-too-brief performance as Aunt Emma--who finds herself flirting with her niece's new husband (DiCaprio reportedly got nervous over his kissing scene with Lumley and went through 27 takes to get it right) and agrees to help him launder his money--is the sublime way she plays Aunt Emma's mostly non-verbal sizing-up of Belfort. Lumley's eyes say a lot: "I knew a lot of Jordans in the '60s. I was Jordan." When Aunt Emma hints at her '60s party girl past and, with a knowing look, points out to Belfort his sweatiness from his cocaine use, it's oddly affecting (as is the pitch-perfect way Allen Toussaint's funky but reverential 1971 take on Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" accompanies the film's pensive final shot). Getting Lumley to play Aunt Emma is clever casting too. Lumley's most famous character is a female Belfort: Patsy on Absolutely Fabulous. I wouldn't be surprised if Aunt Emma in the '60s looked an awful lot like Patsy in the '60s.

In addition to these great scenes between DiCaprio and the likes of Hill, Chandler, McConaughey, Lumley and J.C. MacKenzie as a federal prosecutor who's unamused by Belfort's antics ("You, sir, are what's known as a Grenada"), there are a couple of scenes with lesser-known actors that stand out as well in The Wolf of Wall Street. One performer became an instant quasi-star in one scene, while another has the makings of becoming a terrific character actor Scorsese ought to hire again.

The expressions on the extras in response to Jonah Hill's prosthetic penis in this scene were unscripted. In the scene, he looks like the Masturbating Bear if he were played by Ted McGinley with a sweater tied around his neck.

He's definitely puddin' in Harley's hands now.

I never expected Australian performer Margot Robbie to be the one out of the three unknown female cast members on Pan Am to turn into a big-screen leading lady (alright, I'm guilty of watching that Mad Men ripoff, simply because all the female flight attendants on that show were hot). I expected Karine Vanasse to be the one. But then Scorsese gives Robbie the "From now on, it's gonna be nothing but short, short skirts around the house" scene to run the field with, and by the end of what she does with her character Naomi's sultry match of wits with her philandering husband, you're thinking, "Yeah, she's a star," much like how Melanie Griffith's delivery of "I have a head for business and a bod for sin" turned a temptress from thrillers ranging from Night Moves to Something Wild into a temporary A-list movie star. I wouldn't be surprised if that scene--not to mention her ability to bury her Aussie accent under a convincing Noo Yawk one--was what landed Robbie the role of Harley Quinn in director David Ayer's currently-in-the-works adaptation of Suicide Squad.

Meanwhile, Asian American stereotyping is so bad that when someone like Kenneth Choi plays, for a change, a dumb Asian American guy without a fobby accent, it's progress. On Suburgatory, it was such a relief to see Rex Lee portraying a high school guidance counselor who's as dumb as everyone else in Chatswin, instead of seeing Lee play the same old generic Asian egghead or overachiever. Choi, who's best known for playing one of the Howling Commandos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will be seen next season as Judge Ito on FX's American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, has much less screen time in The Wolf of Wall Street than Lee did during Suburgatory's first two seasons, yet he manages to steal a couple of moments as gluttonous Stratton broker Chester Ming, and you can sense the delight Choi's having in getting to play a dem-dese-dose lowlife in a Scorsese flick. More Asian American characters like these, please.

All these performances wouldn't have been possible without a ringmaster who's still got it, who's still brimming with ideas and passionate about filmmaking and who still wants to provoke thought in the audience without spoon-feeding them, even after 69 (get your mind out of the gutter). Scorsese claimed he only has a couple more movies left in him after the enjoyably depraved circus that is The Wolf of Wall Street. The day Scorsese folds his tent--by the way, his currently-in-the-works follow-up to The Wolf of Wall Street is the Jesuits-in-Japan historical drama Silence, yet another Scorsese project that's the complete tonal opposite of the Scorsese film that preceded it--is going to be a tough one for film lovers everywhere.

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