The Wolf Of Wall Street: Greed’s Repellant Lustre

Every year, there’s one. Every year one film in the Oscar race becomes a target for moral outrage. Last year it was Zero Dark Thirty, a tense and intelligent rendering of the hunt for Bin Laden. The reason for the outrage was the presentation of something we all knew to be true but anyone who expressed happiness about the outcome would rather they didn’t have to face: that torture was used in process of tracking down the world’s most wanted man. That this was simply presented and left to the audience to make a moral decision about was the target of the moral ire.

This year it’s Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s based on the true story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, obscenely wealthy on the back of ethically dodgy, then illegal practices; living a life of unsustainable drug and sex addiction which eventually fell foul of the law. It’s Scorsese so it’s long, with a soundtrack of fabulous music and swearing so frequent you actually fail to notice it after an hour. Based on Belfort’s book, it’s inevitably one side of the story. That’s not the reason for the anger, though; the moral outrage is around the fact that most of the time a lot of people are portrayed as having a lot of fun doing a lot of bad things. Whether it’s lying to customers to reel them in, Friday afternoon dwarf-tossing competitions, driving under the influence or storing money in Swiss accounts through older relatives … whatever it is, it’s a consequence free-life, and it’s a fun one. Leo DiCaprio is again brilliant in the lead role – it’s a mystery to me why he isn’t more lauded in almost any film; here he throws himself with abandon to a part for which he is unlikely to get suitably lauded. The supporting cast are strong too, all grabbing a slice of an infinitely expanding pie; it’s very, very hard not to get swept along.

Which is the precisely the point. If sin wasn’t attractive it wouldn’t be a problem. If greed came with a flashing neon sign that said ‘this will rot your soul from the inside out and you won’t realise it until your death-bed‘, even then many of us would still get sucked in. We’d disbelieve the sign and sleep-walk to a diamond studded oblivion. In the wake of the banking crisis, financial professionals are an easy target, a byword for a moral black-hole of unaccountable greed. Us, with our laptops and tablets and corpulent Christmases would never get sucked in and we must seem them pay.

The Wolf Of Wall Street shows us the truth at its most inconvenient for us who think we are better; caught up as we are in the music and the jokes and excess of it all, we barely stop to consider the consequences. Belfort appears to pay for it all two or three times, but each time he bounces back, and the film’s ending is an uncomfortable one of moral neutrality. I’ve laughed and gasped and enjoyed for three hours – am I really so different? There’s anger at the film’s lack of moral payback precisely because that would make it easier, more comfortable viewing. We’re invited to step onto a moral throne we know at heart we have no right to sit on  – but that won’t stop us doing so, the better to distract ourselves from the fact that if we knew we could get away with it, we’d all most likely make similar choices.

The film is too long, of course – Scorsese, like Belfort, needed someone to tell him “No” at several points. Not that any of it was uninteresting; it was just unnecessary in places. He’s never less than an interesting director, though, and for a three-hour film about finance not to be boring to someone who can scarcely count is no mean feat. Still it could have been shorter and not suffered for it – and perhaps the film’s punch would have been the more forceful for it.

In the end, it’s a good, intelligent, disturbingly entertaining jaunt through a morally bankrupt land of no consequences and no accountability. In effect this is the counterpoint to Argoa film which showed us good people doing good things for little reward or fame. We’d like all good moral choices to be their own reward; the tempting truth The Wolf Of Wall Street presents us with is that sin is repellant from the outside but often experienced as fun on the inside. Treasure in heaven there may be for good and wise choices, but that’s hard to remember when there’s a more visible and more tangible treasure in front of me. Much of Scorsese’s other work presents us with the dark heart of moral self-interest; here he simply gives us the valuable counterpoint that sometimes a good thing to do is simply good, with no apparent payoff as the money flows and the fun keeps on coming. If the film leaves me angry, then it may be because I recognise more of myself then I bargained on.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

The Great Gatsby

Whatever the digital equivalent of a stuck record is, that is how I feel when it comes to film adaptations of much-loved/’un-filmable’/challenging books, plays and the like. Analysis of such films often regresses into ‘this bit wasn’t in the film’ and ‘that bit wasn’t in the book’. Often that’s both irrelevant and unhelpful. Why? It’s instructive to think of the story as something independent of the film or book or play. It’s a different category of object, one which a book or a film or a play all look at from slightly different angles. Necessarily so; they are radically different media with different demands and different constraints. So a film of one story should give us different perspectives on a story which a book can’t. The skill is in doing this well, respecting the original novel but not so much that your film starts feeling like it’s on an entirely pre-determined course, a visual check-list of things to ensure are all present and correct.

It’s rarely that simple, though. People fall in love with works of art; they become part of us. We feel like we own them; so we can feel somehow violated when we sense that something we love hasn’t been served well by an interpreter. Our memories are trashed, our emotions trampled on. And we get angry. Adapting is hard and taxing work.

So to The Great Gatsby. The original novel is one of American culture’s touchstones. Written in 1925 by F Scott Fitzgerald, it’s a dizzying tale of the jazz era. The hedonism and endless partying of and around the smart and monied set is evoked in a series of surreal, almost hallucinatory images and metaphors; the majestic prose is wrapped around the story of the titular Gatsby, a man of wealth, purveyor of parties and possessed of a quirky and ultimately sinister passion towards the entrancing Daisy. The book itself is narrated by Nick, a man who rents a house next door to Gatsby and finds himself both part of and close to some increasingly out-of-control events.

That’s the original telling of the story in a vastly inadequate summary, and the novel is one that is often touted as America’s most-loved; it’s beautiful, mysterious and romantic, critiquing the American dream even as it portrays it. It’s a tough one to adapt for the screen – both because of the extraordinary prose and it’s status in American culture. Mess with it and you’re messing with America’s self-understanding.

All of which makes Australian director Baz Luhrmann an ideal but also dangerous choice. Ideal because his previous films indicate a fearless creativity around iconic texts: his Romeo and Juliet or Moulin Rouge show a breathless creativity and evangelistic passion to present something old as something vibrantly new. He’s not one to shirk a challenge. He’s a dangerous choice for the same reasons: with such singular and complete vision, the likelihood of offended book-lovers was high. Add to that rumours of a troubled production, the news it was to be presented in 3D and accompanied by an out-of-control budget; then there was every expectation of both severe disappointment and art imitating the life which the art was portraying. Decadence, opulence, carelessness with money and emotion … it’s all there, we were told.

So what is this new film, then? It’s an inevitable, joyous, emotion-wracking, dazzling, addictive, life-enhancing failure. A failure because with so much invested in the novel, with the stakes so high, it could only be a failure. But like Gatsby himself, what a failure. Like all Luhrmann films, it looks and sounds extraordinary. The colours are vivid; the cinematography fluid and energetic; even the 3D (and this is rare) somehow serves the story by somehow managing to look at times (deliberately, I’m sure) artificial so that you’re even further immersed into the ever more artificial world of the novel’s characters. It sounds extraordinary, again, as all Luhrmann films do. Here, as with Shakespeare and Moulin Rouge, he uses the music of today to soundtrack the world of yesterday. It works magnificently – either to reinforce the story or evoke the atmosphere on a whole other level.

The performances are uneven. Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as Gatsby; Carey Mulligan as Daisy is simply outstanding. Toby Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway is intended to be a little bland, a little melt-into-the background both to provide the viewer with an anchor and to portray how the world we’re seeing here gradually sucks your very sense of self; the trouble is he’s bland to the point of boring. Other smaller (but significant) parts just get lost in the haze; the performances either aren’t strong enough to be noticed or get drowned out by the surrounding noise: especially, and crucially Jordan, the woman who acts as Nick’s route into Gatsby’s world. The little known (to me at least) Elizabeth Debicki gives what felt like a humble and skilful performance; but it’s so under-written she disappears like fading fog.

As you’d expect from Lurhmann, some of his flourishes let him down; not least the sequences where the (written) narrator’s words appear as if typed on to the screen, then drift off towards the viewer. It’s clever and brave – looking the brilliance of the prose in the face but refusing to back down.It’s  too much so: adapting such a well-loved novel it’s probably best not to remind people quite so directly why they so loved it in the first place.

So Lurhmann’s Gatsby is an apt and brilliant failure; and we should be grateful that Lurhmann has given us such a personal vision and in doing so launched the story into a generation’s visual consciousness. I’d rather watch a director of his passion, vision, courage and creativity fall short, than dozens of others get it spot on (if such a mark is possible). Films are made for the cinema, and should be seen there if at all possible; rarely for me, I find myself telling you to seek it out in 3D if you can. Whilst I hope that format doesn’t dominate cinema’s future, it’s good to see a director find a purpose in the format that isn’t pure financial profit. For that, and much else, we should be grateful for Lurhmann’s Gatsby.

For a good analysis of the film as a vision of the novel, from someone with  deeper and more recent engagement of the novel than mine, see this excellent piece by my friend Sandra

I rated this film 7/10 in imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Inception

It’s almost hard to know what to say about this. It feels like everything has been pretty much said already. I can’t remember the last time such volume was aid or written about a summer blockbuster. Christopher Nolan – of Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight fame – has clearly been told by his studio to do whatever he likes with a huge budget after the runaway success of The Dark Knight.

I’ve enjoyed every one of Nolan’s. He’s fond of keeping the audience guessing, and woe to you if you tune out for a moment or two at the wrong time. He also knows how to put together a proper action sequence, which means that he’s finding for himself an audience for his brand of intelligent entertainment who would otherwise be going to see The Expendables. For which we can only thank him. He’s sometimes a bit too fond of showing off his narrative dexterity, but let’s be honest – when was the last time you felt the need to criticise a major blockbuster for being a bit too smart?  Exactly – even when he gets that a little wrong, we still owe him some praise for the willingness to raise the bar.

All this is there in Inception, in spades. You know the deal by now, I’m sure. Leo DiCaprio is specialist in the bizarre art/science of inserting ideas into the sub-conscious by way of manufactured dreams. This time he’s called up to do a job of such complexity that everyone else tells him it’s impossible – on the understanding that if he does, he’ll be able to see clear his name regarding his wife’s death and see his children again.

So it begins. Action sequences inside dreams that show us the at-times impossible created with the emphasis on the physical rather than compute generated. Which means more impact, more ‘crunch’, just a more visceral experience – and all the more exciting for it. A plot that layers and folds back on itself faster than a Freudian slip. Leo at his best, Ellen Page continuing her welcome journey to her surely inevitable stardom (I really hope she continues to choose the good stuff she’s chosen thus far…), and Michael Caine, who always seems to crop up somewhere in a Christopher Nolan film.

All of Nolan’s films are , in some way, about how our past affects our present  – and our future, before we’re even aware it’s doing so. If that’s been hinted at, sometimes only subtly but there all the same, since the backward storytelling of his debut Memento then it’s at the front and centre of this, the most successful film he’s made. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, I can’t say much more than that. For now, this: even as you let the film’s perfect final scene play in your mind and have the compulsory debate as to whether it means one thing or the other, you also know that you’ve seen a major blockbuster explore how past traumas worm into our sub-conscious and affect us more than we know. It’s hard to believe such a big film manages this – but perhaps that’s why it’s touched such a chord with so many. We all have pasts, all have skeletons of different sizes and shapes in our cupboards. Think about it and the film leaves you asking: what will happen if I don’t seek healing here? Get it, from the God of past, present and future.

Revolutionary Road – Faded Dreams

An old story goes that if you throw a frog (I’ve never worked out why you would, but bear with me) into a pan of boiling water, then it will jump straight back out. By contrast, if you place said unfortunate in a pan of cold water that’s slowly heated up from below, it won’t notice, and it will slowly die. I have no idea if this is true, as I have both a shortage of frogs and shortage of inclination to test the theory. It’s meant to illustrate the way problems born of the environment we are in day by day can slowly creep up on us, and ultimately dominate us without us ever realising.

In this analogy, Revolutionary Road gives us Kate and Leo as Frank & April – their marriage is the frog, the comfort of suburban life is the slowly bubbling pan. The film has the same outsider’s penetrating eye for what’s really going on as did the same director’s American Beauty. This isn’t quite in the same league – thanks mainly to an unnecessary and poorly written ‘wise-fool’ character in the form of the son of their neighbours. He’s on day release from the local psychiatric hospital, ad predictably he’s the only one who really sees what’s going on. That aside, this is an all too telling and painfully real tale. Couples who settle into safety as soon as they have children, who dream of doing something different but who end up slowly suffocated by the expectations of everyone they know. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply depressing, but it’s more than that. This is, for some, the price of having children – using duty to them to paper over the cracks, to pretend this really is what they wanted. All the while that disappointment and disillusion has to go somewhere – and it goes on sly comments, witholding of affection and settling for calm co-existence at the price of doing the hard work that will lead to genuine break-through.

The film, then, takes this principle and spins it out to its logical (dramatised) conclusion.  It’s not perfect  – I’d like to have seen more on how this effects the children, who turn up so  rarely that I kept forgetting about them. It is, though, to be roundly praised for it’s bravery in taking on the suburban dream so dear to this film’s target audience. I’ve heard many people say the film looks depressing and predictable – that it’s a turn off. That may be – but maybe because it’s so real. It should be required viewing for couples planning their future.