Monday, January 6, 2014

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

Martin Scorsese's latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, is the very definition of "polarizing."  According to the aggregated critics on Rotten Tomatoes, it is "amongst Scorsese's best work", "the worst writing Scorsese has ever been associated with",  "the best film of 2013" and so horrible that "[i]t doesn't even deserve a grade."  Critics are split on whether the movie has "propulsive purpose" or, alternatively, no discernible "point of view."  There's also a raging, furious debate over whether the movie glorifies or condemns the capitalist excess of its pro/antagonist, Jordan Belfort.

The one point on which everyone seems to agree, however, is the film's supposed debauchery.  And yeah, sure, there is coke snorted or blown into various bodily orifices, a marching band in their underwear, and multiple depictions or orgies.  But I have one important question to ask ... why don't we ever see Leo's penis?

More, with spoilers for Wolf of Wall Street below the fold.

I should say up front that I was not a fan of this movie.  I thought it was the most drawn out, redundant, pointless mess of a movie since the first 182 minutes of The Hobbit.  Never before have I had more respect for the role of a good movie editor, or sympathy for every studio exec who has ever told a director that s/he can't have everything that s/he wants.  Maybe because I thought the film had so little to say of interest about anything (the wealthy and powerful are decadent monsters ... oh, and drugs are bad) that my mind started to wander at somewhere about the fifteen-minute mark, around the time of the third or fourth coke-fueled orgy.  I started thinking about Lucy and Ricky and their separate twin-size beds.

See, during the initial run of I Love Lucy, the standards of television decency mandated that any suggestion of "family relations" was strictly verboten.  Hence, a couple that was happily married, both in real life and in TV-land, could not be shown lying side-by-side on the same mattress, even if fully clothed without even the hint of physical contact (with the minor exception of Lucy's pregnancy, of course).  From the perspective of the modern viewer, such a bedroom layout is absolutely inexplicable.  Not only is it comically prudish, it makes no sense within the plot of the show.  Surely even in the 1950s, a married couple choosing to sleep in separate beds must be having relationship issues (beyond Lucy's thwarted career ambitions).

But at the time, it must have made perfect sense to the audience, who would simply fill in the literal and figurative gap between the beds in their minds and question it no further.  Of course, eventually writers, directors and actors threw up their hands at such restrictions, pointed out the absurdity and charged forward -- censors be damned! -- to depict realistic married couples sharing realistic single beds.  And then, as the outrage faded and we realize that the world did not end, the old mores faded into obscurity, rendering I Love Lucy a dated product of its time.

So, back to Wolf of Wall Street, maybe I was being a bit harsh before.  It's not the least entertaining movie I saw this year -- that would be Kick-Ass 2.  But if I ever feel the need to revisit this movie, I can probably make do with the first trailer, which has the best scene in the film nearly in full:

I'd probably watch Matthew McConaughey beat his chest with Leo on loop for three hours before I watch this movie again in its entirety.  Besides the entertainment value (and the much-needed charm that McConaughey adds), that scene actually says something about the primal, animalistic impulses that drive so much of Wall Street.  We live with the myth that the Belfort's of the world are the smartest guys in the room, that the gross disparity in wealth between the One Percent and the rest of us is all the product of their ingenuity and mental prowess ... when the reality is that maybe these guys simply beat their chests the hardest and fling their shit the furthest.  When the chest beating returns later in the film, it may be the single novel contribution the film makes to the old "absolute power corrupts absolutely" observation, which ceased being novel around the time King David had his eye on Bathsheba.

The scene reflects a turning point in the plot, right as Belfort decides not to abandon the firm under an agreement with the SEC to avoid an FBI investigation.  As the room of Alpha Males (and Females) gathered to hear Belfort's farewell address slowly morph into a rallying cry, Belfort recalls that first, fateful lunch with his old mentor, McConaughey's Mark Hanna, who taught him this chest-thumping mantra.  In defiance of all reason (and facing an inevitable indictment that would threaten to bring down the entire company), Belfort reduces a room of One Percenters, these titans of Wall Street, into a pack of baboons senselessly beating their chests in unison.

Of course, we already know these people are hormone-driven degenerates because the film can barely let a scene go by without showing us a half-dozen exposed breasts ... but only the implication of male genitalia.  And that's the quaintness as well as the cowardice of Wolf of Wall Street.  It's a room full of walking, talking penises (even those stockbrokers who happen to be women) with nary a single schlong in full view.  The closest we get is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Jonah Hill with a prosthesis.  To the modern audience, of course, it's no great shock that a movie not rated NC-17 would opt to keep male genitalia out of view.  However, it should also come as no great shock if, a generation from now, the penis-free orgy scenes in Wolf look no less ridiculous than the conveniently placed phallus-shaped objects in the foreground of Austin Powers 2's opening scene.

Scorsese may not be blameworthy for going only half-way towards debauchery, or for Hollywood's implicitly sexist "clothed male / naked female" standard of decency.  But there is something cowardly nonetheless about being this sheepish in a movie that seems to have no raison d'ĂȘtre beyond excess for its own sake.

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