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Which Wolf is it?

Scorsese splits viewers with his sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll portrayal of financial fraud

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Of all the Oscar frontrunners, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street is the most polarizing.

Is it, as one rapt critic writes, "a delirious, manic, push-the-limits comedy of gaudy amorality?" Or possibly, "as hot and wet as freshly butchered meat: every second, every frame of its three-hour running time virile with a lifetime's accumulated genius?"

Or, as its detractors suggest, could the film be "pushy and hollow, too much of a bad thing?" How about "bloated, redundant, vulgar, shapeless and pointless?"

Scripted by Terence Winter (The Sopranos) and starring an Oscar-nominated Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf centres on Jordan Belfort, the real-life financial flim-flam man who perfected a "pump and dump" scheme in the late 1980s and defrauded small-time penny-stock investors of more than $200 million. Belfort once made $12 mill in less than five minutes, and he spent money at almost the same rate. (In the movie, he throws cash around, sometimes literally.)

Analyzing Scorsese's shamelessly glamorous greed-fest, most of the Internet yelling comes down to one question: Does Wolf expose its central subject? Or does it endorse him?

That's a tricky question, and one that will be thrashed out until Oscar night and beyond. In the meantime, it's instructive to put Scorsese's exuberant, extravagant cinematic energy to one side for a moment, and take a look at a YouTube video of the real-life 1994 Christmas party at Belfort's firm.

Through the medium of crappy '90s video, we see Belfort giving a speech about pride, integrity, loyalty, blah, blah, blah, while people mill around and look bored. There's a background hum of talking, shuffling and aimless drunken shout-outs. Twice Belfort shushes people. At another point he says, "helloooo" into the microphone, because his audience is drifting away.

As one YouTube viewer comments: "Big letdown after watching the movie."

Well, yes. The footage is sort of excruciating, and it's not even three minutes long. Basically, it feels like your own office Christmas party. And would you pay $10.25 to see that?

The movie, on the other hand, is three hours long, and packed with orgiastic office parties and beach-house bacchanals, hookers and blow, kinky sex and Quaalude-fuelled car accidents. DiCaprio charges through doors and rallies his adoring employees with ecstatic exhortations.

It's an incredible physical expression of American excess, brought to life with plunging, prowling camerawork, hyperkinetic motion and jazzy rhythmic editing. Scorsese turns Belfort's office into a beautifully choreographed carnival of chimps, semi-nude marching bands and prostitute parades, with the money fluttering in the air like confetti.

Then there's Belfort himself. Leo brings always brings some of his golden-boy aura with him, even when he's not playing a golden boy. Here his movie-star presence gilds Belfort, who in real life tends to come off as a Vegas-era Paul Anka, with maybe a touch of Sitch from Jersey Shore.

It's not surprising that Scorsese's bravura treatment of such a morally worthless subject has everyone riled up. This rise-and-fall story (actually more of a rise-and-rise-and-rise-and-very-slight-fall story) provokes strong reactions. Some viewers respond with a queasy mix of envy and contempt, others with thundering condemnation, still others -- especially in the theatres in New York's financial district -- with wild cheering.

People see what they want to see in Wolf. It's interesting that Oliver Stone's Wall Street, a ponderous morality tale that's the opposite of Scorsese's brazen dark comedy, was also read by some as condemnation, by others as celebration.

As the argument rages, combatants talk about the fraught relationship between art and life, attempting to sort out fact and fiction in Belfort's self-serving story.

Facts do pop up in unlikely places in Wolf. Belfort's partner Danny Porush, who is called Donnie Azoff in the film, really did marry his first cousin. And the real Jordan Belfort did have sex on a bed covered in money -- a cool $3 million, evidently. In our postmodern world, it seems, people who can afford to live out insanely excessive movie clichés are doing just that.

But the film as a whole, all glamour and gleam and id-like energy, is clearly a fiction. As that "letdown" YouTube footage suggests, Belfort in life could never be what Scorsese made him with his more-more-more art.

The film's haters will say that Scorsese has given Belfort the kind of myth he's always wanted. The film's fans will say that, ultimately, Wolf is not about Jordan Belfort at all: he's just a stand-in for something much bigger.

Meanwhile, recent news that the DVD will feature a four-hour version -- with bonus sex and f-bombs and financial malfeasance! -- means this fight is far from over.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 D14

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