Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

If THE GREAT GATSBY’s Nick Carraway arrived on Wall Street in the late 1980s and decided that the corruption and decadence was pretty awesome, he’d look something like Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.  Jordan starts out with notions of doing right by the clients while making money for his firm and himself, but his first day on the job he’s quickly disabused of such thinking.  As his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) makes clear, they’re playing with other people’s money.  The point is to keep the investors’ cash in the game so they can keep getting their share via commission.

Jordan finds himself out of a job after the October 1987 stock market crash, but his fortunes take a marked upturn when he begins pitching penny stocks in a strip mall boiler room in the suburbs.  He’s a gifted salesman who knows exactly what to say to convince blue collar types to risk their hard-earned cash on companies unlikely to produce the returns he implies are possible.  The commission percentages are much higher on the garbage he’s selling than on the blue chip stocks, so it isn’t long before Jordan is earning fat checks and striking out on his own.

Jordan’s brilliant idea is to open his own brokerage house that lures wealthy investors with familiar investment options and then pushes a bunch of the crap stocks on them.  Jordan perfects the script that he teaches to his right hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and some old friends so they can land well-heeled clients.  The plan works like a charm.  Jordan rebrands the firm as the more legitimate-sounding Stratton Oakmont and moves them out of a former auto body shop on Long Island to offices in New York City’s financial district.    
For three hours director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter present enough bad behavior and language to make a proverbial sailor blush, yet by and large the illegal business practices, heavy drug use, and degradation of women is rewarded and mostly consequence-free.  Jordan and crew achieve their warped vision of the American dream because on some level society deems this acceptable, even if the ugly truths may be hidden from view.  Jordan lives the high life in the land of get mine rather than the land of opportunity, and Scorsese makes it look like a blast to be able to be bombed out of your mind on cocaine and quaaludes and enjoy all that money can buy, whether it’s purchasing a mansion, yacht, helicopter, and sports car or trading up from mousy wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) to lingerie-designing model Naomi (Margot Robbie).

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET has faced some criticism for making Jordan’s excessive and criminal lifestyle seem too attractive without condemning it, especially because this is based on a true story, but that’s precisely the point.  Jordan has what a lot of people want.  He’s just one of the few able to get it by exploiting get rich quick dreams.  It goes without saying that Jordan and associates are horrible people, but they’re the manifestation of a culture that confuses the pursuit of wealth with the pursuit of happiness.

Jordan and his employees are nothing more than con men operating under a more respectable banner. DiCaprio shines as a huckster whose disdain for his marks ignores the fact that he too has bought into the slick talk he uses to rip them off.  When Jordan gives savage inspirational speeches to his work force, DiCaprio comes off like a bright-eyed cult leader.  He’s very persuasive, yet his monologues seem designed to convince himself of the worthiness of his choices as much as they are to fire up the cold callers doing his bidding.  This puffery emerges in Jordan’s unreliable narration.  For instance, an amount of cash he claims was stolen from his Trump Tower apartment increases as he tells the story.  When Jordan is wrong or inconsistent with the details, it’s in service of building his own legend, which makes him more self-assured and more of an authority to those turning to him for guidance.

Jordan uses words to seduce, and DiCaprio relishes every one in his performance, whether he’s barking out motivational speeches or flirting with bribing an FBI agent.  DiCaprio hints at a wink behind everything Jordan says.  It’s as if he’s asking the rhetorical question “ain’t I a stinker” while beaming with pride at his ignoble accomplishments and actions.  DiCaprio also attacks the physical comedy with zest, particularly when Jordan crawls down a country club’s front steps to his car while incapacitated on powerful sedatives and engages in a slow motion chase of Donnie when he gets home.

Although THE WOLF OF WALL STREET places the spotlight on an unflattering portrait of individual and collective aspirations, Winter’s screenplay spots a lot of humor in the squalor and buffoonery.  All that’s missing is a laugh track to these men behaving badly.  The question is whether all that cackling is because of the idea that these slimeballs are to be envied and emulated or that there are so many suckers waiting to be bled dry.

Grade: A

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues


The saying doesn’t go that the family that reads the news together stays together, but it ought to as far as Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) is concerned.  Ron and his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) are living the dream as television news co-anchors at a New York City network affiliate in ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES until she is selected over him to fill the opening on the six o’clock evening broadcast.  To make matters worse, Ron is fired.  For a man who places his self-worth in his occupation--OK, and his hair too--it’s more than he can take.  He abandons Veronica and their six-year-old son and returns to San Diego with the hope of reclaiming past glory.

Renewed fame and fortune aren’t awaiting him, sending Ron into a depression, but the big break he needs arrives in the nick of time.  Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) approaches with the offer of manning the desk at Global News Network, the first 24-hour cable news channel.  Ron tracks down former members of his news team Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) and goes back to New York to take his rightful place in front of the TelePrompter.  Relegated to the dead of night shift, Ron has no choice but to traffick in sensationalism.

Many Hollywood comedies, especially sequels, play it safe by giving audiences more of what they already approved.  Ferrell and co-writer and director Adam McKay certainly don’t skimp on repeating by slightly tweaking similar bits that fans loved in the original 2004 film.  They also acknowledge the fans by giving popular secondary characters showcase moments, although such inclusions can make ANCHORMAN 2 seem overstuffed.  In addition to the tried-and-true, they make room for a lot of new and strange comedic ideas.  Not all of the weird straying from the otherwise straightforward redemption story hits the mark.  Ron’s self-imposed isolation in a lighthouse after losing his sight takes things too far afield for too long without enough payoffs in laughs.  Still with something this ambitious the clunkers have to be taken with the good, of which there’s a sufficient amount.

ANCHORMAN 2 sets its satirical aim on the 24/7 news cycle, a fat and deserving target if ever there was one.  Anymore it seems as though Sidney Lumet’s NETWORK is being referenced as a how-to guide for ratings chasing above all than understood as a denouncement of it.  The absurd content that Ron and team favor to fill their news hole permits ANCHORMAN 2 to make its points humorously and effectively that the public gets the news it deserves when it chooses to reward bottom of the barrel reporting.  Ferrell and McKay aren’t letting the information gatekeepers off the hook, but their serious message couched in silly jokes is that infotainment and manufactured outrage are not in the best interest of viewers.

Although media criticism provides weight to ANCHORMAN 2, the escalation of jokes, obvious and obscure referential humor, and sheer number of oddball gags ensure that the film doesn’t forget that its primary purpose is to amuse.  Its hit-to-miss ratio can seem inconsistent, but that’s only because so much is thrown out there to determine what plays.  Ferrell has his share of duds on his filmography, a fact that holds true for anyone who works as often as he does and takes so many risks as an actor, screenwriter, and producer.  Nevertheless, as reflected in his overall body of work and ANCHORMAN 2, his comedic instincts are correct enough to make him worth trusting more than his contemporaries.

Grade: B

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2013)

When Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) tells Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) that he doesn’t connect with people, the manager of influential Chicago folk music club Gate of Horn is evaluating him as a performer.  The assessment could just as well apply to the singer’s interpersonal relationships, though. Llewyn tends to approach the world as if it owes him for gracing everyone with his presence and talent.  He’s perpetually in need of a couch to crash on, and he doesn’t think twice about asking his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) to lend him money to terminate another pregnancy he may be responsible for.  Never mind that the unnamed woman wanting an abortion is Jim’s girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan).

Despite his sour disposition and frequent impositions,  Llewyn continues to be treated generously, which suggests people believe he deserves their help even if he takes it for granted and risks alienating his friends and acquaintances in the Greenwich Village folk scene.  Perhaps it means that while he behaves like a jerk now, he didn’t always, or not to this degree.  His current career struggles and the way his musical partnership was severed explain why he’s mired in a funk and why people may be willing to cut him some slack.  Set during a blustery February 1961, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS externalizes Llewyn’s depression.  Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel swabs the singer’s environment in gray and often suggests occupying a dark space for enduring Job-like trials.  

Co-writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen merge O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and A SERIOUS MAN into INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ bleak but comic musical journey with an impeccable soundtrack.  Structured like a song in the round, Llewyn’s odyssey takes a circular shape with which he’s out of sync.  He doesn’t come in at the proper place and stumbles to find the appropriate exit point to break the cycle and rejoin where he should.  Although he can anticipate what’s coming, Llewyn is doomed to remain in the loop at the wrong measure.

Isaac isn’t pressed to mold Llewyn into someone appealing to have around, yet his apparent neediness attracts empathy despite his surly and defeated bearing.  Misery loves company, and he’s the kind of person who can be comforting to have around when everyone is having a rough time of it.  If and when others in Llewyn’s circle break through, something that is likely closer than the characters suspect, he’s also one they’ll leave behind because his unfulfilled high self-regard and standards will make him intolerable to be near.  Llewyn isn’t chasing professional success as much as he’s trying to escape himself, and he’d rather decry what he perceives as selling out than to compromise the integrity of his art.

The cool emotional tone of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS benefits from the humor the supporting cast generates.  Adam Driver’s gut-busting backing vocals to novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy” represent everything Llewyn resists.  John Goodman’s scornful jazz man, who derides the inferiority of a suicidal man’s leaping spot, indicates what Llewyn’s future could be if he doesn’t change course.  Mulligan’s brittleness and seething anger toward Llewyn produce a funny inversion of the sweet harmonizer she is on stage with her boyfriend.  Timberlake doesn’t play his moments for laughs but does well displaying the decency and heart that Llewyn resists in himself.

Although the protagonist appears unable to tap any reserves of affection, the Coens present his story as a common, tragic tale with a lot of compassion.  For filmmakers often accused (and wrongly so) of being snide, this prickly comedy-drama demonstrates that there’s more below than surface to discover if one’s willing to take a closer look.

Grade: A