the better truth

the better truth

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf

"I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men" - Isaac Newton, commenting on the 18th century ‘South Sea Bubble’ financial disaster. Later revealed he had invested and lost money.

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” brought to mind some dialogue from a 1954 film noir movie:

Criminal: Now you listen to me cop I pay your salary.
Sgt. Friday: Alright sit down. I’m gonna earn it.
Criminal: You already have... the kinda money you make... what do they pay you to carry that badge around? 40 cents an hour?
Sgt. Friday: (quiet rage) You sit down!
The criminal sits.
Sgt. Friday: (sternly) That badge pays $464 a month. That’s what the job’s worth. I knew it when I hired on. $67.40 comes out for withholding. I give $27.84 for pension and $12 bucks for widows and orphans. That leaves me $356.76. That badge is worth $1.82 an hour. So mister you just settle back in that chair cause I’m gonna blow about 20 bucks of it right now.

This snippet from the decades old, forgettable, 88 minute “Dragnet” movie, has more heart than the three hours of Scorsese bacchanal. These two films might seem unrelated as they are different genres made in different eras. Actually they are both comic book examinations of professions; the former police work, the latter banking. The 1950s sketch of life in the LAPD is well crafted and gives a fun simulacrum of detective work. Scorsese's film is a badly executed hollow portrait of awful person which bares little resemblance to the financial services industry.  The success of the kitsch police thriller is simple. Sgt. Friday is entertaining. His pithy no-nonsense staccato verbal quips ooze the righteousness of someone who fails to be ruled by the dollar. Jordan Belfort, the central protagonist of “The Wolf of Wall Street, is a dreary money grabber who secretes a potent mixture of self-pity and arrogance. Note to Scorsese: good cartoon characters are good; bad cartoon characters are good; but pathetic cartoon characters are pathetic.

All hope that the director was going to create a realistic commentary on our current financial system evaporated in the first moments of Belfort’s appearance on Wall Street.  His boss takes the novice employee, played by Leonardo Dicaprio, to lunch at a high end restaurant on top of the World Trade Center on his first day on the job. (Full disclosure: I worked on Wall Street and was familiar with his boss).  I find this account of events to be unbelievable; but not as outlandish as what follows. This meal supposedly included bouts of cocaine sniffing and lengthy advice on masterbation, virility and ‘how to fleece clients’. Matthew McConaughey’s performance as the boss might have been recreated by any number of eighth grade drama students who were given the following instructions: DRUG ADDICT /WALL STREET MONEY GUY. At this point Belfort is an earnest teetotaler as the evil demons have yet to work their black magic.  This magic seems to have affected all the patrons of the restaurant because they fail to react as McConaughey leads Dicaprio in a chest pounding incantation that includes making gorilla snorts. Guess the crowd was used to it as McConaughey is a regular lunch customer. The only time I personally knew brokers to take long lunches was either to attend financial presentations or entertain clients; neither of which were daily occurrences. The essence of being a broker, especially in the days before cell phones, is to be chained to your desk while the market is open in order to facilitate customer orders. This garish caricature of Wall Street continues after our hero is laid off following the 1987 crash. His new gig was located in a low end strip mall on Long Island.  This ‘first day’ is even more implausible than his previous debut.  He picks up his phone for his very first sales call to at complete stranger and lands an enormous order. His co-workers fall silent. One of them exclaims: “How did you do that?!!!“ Maybe “so that’s why they call you Superman!” would have been more appropriate.

The most offensive dimension of these scenes is the portrayal of Belfort as a Horatio Alger-like innocent being led astray by the evil Wall Streeters. His post-crash job transition is portrayed as a natural step for someone who had secured a brokerage license and needed to continue to work in financial services.  There is a scene where he considers bringing his talent to another industry but his wife convinces him that Wall Street is where he belongs. To be clear: a decision to transition from a ‘legitimate’ brokerage apprenticeship to working in a penny stock ‘boiler room’ is the equivalent of a mainstream actor deciding to abandon broadway for pornography. Such an individual would probably know the difference between the two worlds and understand that joining one severely limits one’s chances of rejoining the other.  It is doubtful that the ‘real’ Belfort explained this to his doting wife who might have seen his penny stock career in a different light.

The film is based on Belfort’s story as portrayed in his best selling autobiography “Catching the Wolf of Wall Street”. Scorsese is impervious to any notion that the master con man is being disingenuous. Perhaps the fact that this was written while our hero was behind bars for fraud, amongst other felonies, might have given the director pause. It’s difficult to divine the Scorsese vision for this film. Current news is a grist-mill for dramatic material about Wall Street. The morning after seeing the film the following headline was in the New York Times: “Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward” - about professors hiding pro-business funding for their pro-business research. Incidentally the week before it was revealed that Warren Buffett made $25,000 a minute in 2013. Incidentally the academics yearlong toil, worth maybe four minutes of Mr. Buffett’s time, is paid via a salary rather than from investment returns. This means the teachers, and other working people, pay double the income tax rate as billionaires such as Buffett.  Despite the myriad of outrageous inequities, Mr. Scorsese feels a circus film about an unsympathetic clown is an intelligent way to showcase the shortcomings of Wall Street.

The director requires three hours to tell Belfort’s ponderous story. Early on we are treated to our hero snorting cocaine from the anus of a call girl before greeting his first wife who is patiently waiting at home. Much of the remaining two and a half hours oscillates between variations on the anus snort and passionate sales pitches. Once again kudos to Leonardo as his adrenaline filled rants, whether he was pushing stocks, downing whisky, hitting his wife.... were altogether convincing. A full third of this film is made up of the sales monologues.  The best salesman I ever knew was the fuller brush man who visited our house every month when I was a child. He sold various soaps and brushes. Dramatically speaking he would have been a more interesting subject which, in turn, should give a strong indication as to the weakness of the theatrical backbone of this movie. As a twelve year old the drug and sex orgies might have had some appeal. As a middle aged movie goer these carnal flashes have the sustaining power of fiery car crashes or exploding buildings. Despite being saddled with playing this absurd character, Leonardo manages to deliver moments of brilliance. There is a scene in the lobby of a waspy country club where he summons the seemingly lost art of physical slapstick comedy. He mimicks the effects on the human body after downing a handful of quaaludes. One felt transported back to the golden era of silent films where body movement was paramount. Scorsese himself, despite his fateful decision to bring this film to life, has some interesting moments. Noone outdoes this director in capturing the swagger of outcast, underclass New York dudes; think of the men featured in “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas”. They are repulsive losers and yet there is a strange dignity that keeps the audience glued to every donut chomp and insipid comment. In addition he expanded his brilliant voice over exposition, which often includes a freeze frames, to include Belfort actually speaking directly to the audience. (A nod to ‘House of Cards’?)  The supporting cast managed to outshine the big name stars.  Every fat roll of Jonah Hill exudes a feckless perversion that leads the audiences to wonder what will come out when he reaches for his pockets: a crackpipe? a pen? his penis? Margot Robbie shines as the second wife. Her blond locks boldly proclaiming, this has nothing to do with Farah Fawcett - it’s a classy hairdo. The ‘Lawng Iwland’ accent was pitch perfect evoking the brassy sparkle of McMansions whose interiors evoke Versailles via Ralph Lauren. Another highpoint amidst the drawn-out sex and screaming is the taciturn FBI man Kyle Chandler.  He brings a steely calm to all the endless visual indigestion.  Unfortunately Scorsese ends the film with a odd but revealing sequence. The hero G-man, who flaunts his proud working man credentials, seems overcome with the dinginess of his subway commute. Meanwhile our hero is out of prison and racking up money with his newest venture “Straight Line Persuasion System”, a course on training salesmen. Chandler’s melancholy is rooted in the injustice of life. The director seems to forget that our FBI man is an exalted untouchable in a world of mammon.

Having the G-man feel his life’s work unrewarding compared to Belfort’s material riches shows the intellectual dishonesty of the story. Scorsese has always had a dark vision - probably best illustrated in his cameo as the misogynistic passenger in Taxi Driver who verbally fantasizes about butchering his wife. “The Wolf of Wall Street” shows that he’s finally crossed Kurtz’s line of sanity. What is the audience to make of the endless minuscule documentation of Belfort’s debauchery?; or the never-ending sequences of frenzied speeches to the duped customers/employees? Belfort is the master persuader and perhaps his most prized victim is Scorsese himself. The master salesman fooled the master film director into giving him a starring role. The truth is that the lead protagonist is merely a grotesque worth documenting in a footnote about fringe excess. The real villains are the operators who successfully integrate themselves into polite society. People such as Ken Starr the notorious Ponzi schemer who targeted celebrity clients; including MARTIN SCORSESE. Such figures are nowhere to be found in “The Wolf of Wall Street”. It is hard to know how much Scorsese personally lost in his dealings with Starr but it is interesting that he would decide to focus his artistic gaze on Jordan Belfort. Unfortunately  the choice is rooted in the “madness” of anger. It is easy to understand the rage of being taken by a slick suited Wall Street con man. It is also understandable that discussing the fact that real wages haven’t risen in the US since the 1970s might not appear as dramatic red meat. Ironically the fury of our current political divide rests in the bedrock of this income inequality. Scorsese overwrought need to definitively nail this towering bad guy is a personal revenge statement rather than a universal story. “The Wolf of Wall Street” fails to give answers to the raging crowds of Tea Partiers or 99 percenters. The lack real insight into our current centralization of wealth makes this film a private artist statement that has little resonance. Mr. Scorsese self righteously points the finger at this monster while the far more pernicious attitudes are unchallenged. Four years on from the 2008 financial crisis there have been no substantive reforms to address the concentration of wealth and power in our financial institutions.  To quote former labor secretary Robert Reich repeating Justice Brandeis: “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.”  A vast majority of people are feeling immobility rooted in economic stagnation while a select few enjoy exponential financial success. Jordan Belfort is a ridiculous sideshow. A charismatic hustler who happened to land in the financial sector rather than health care (Richard M. Scrushy, HealthSouth Corp), energy production (Jeffrey Skilling, Enron) or media (Robert Maxwell, Mirror Group).  Their stories might hint at institutional trouble, but it always becomes about the specific brand of sociopathology. In short, good businessmen are alike; crooked businessmen are crooked in their own fashion. Conflating the individual with the vast behemoth of the industry might lead to the wrong conclusions about a remedy. Wall Street’s problems are not rooted in hookers and quaaludes.

The post movie Belfort is currently hawking his “Straight Line Persuasion System”. This training advice kit for salesman has a website ( which asks the question: Can You Really Use The Wolf of Wall Street’s Sales Tactics to Ethically Persuade People And Make Money? (His emphasis) He is also shopping a reality TV show featuring himself. Belfort makes me crave the comic book villains of yesteryear who were less pathologically tiresome. Creeps who didn’t turn their depraved egocentric criminality into another business. As Scorsese shows these people can get under your skin and into your head. Even the FBI man wondered if he wasn’t stupid for simply cashing in and not worrying. If they can get to Chandler and Scorsese... are we all next? Where have you gone Joe Friday, our nation turns it’s lonely eyes to you. Perhaps Jack Webb could be hologrammed into this years coming Oscar ceremony. He could approach the microphone in a simple. ill-fitting, off-the-rack tuxedo. “Thank you members of the Academy. I wasn’t the most famous actor or the best paid... but I wouldn’t trade places with a movie mogul or a superstar. I tried to do my job well. I got paid fairly. I looked out for the other guy... it might seem corny but.... (pause, clears his throat)  And this years Oscar for missing an important opportunity: Martin Scorsese, director, “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

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