‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ offer opposing looks at the American Dream
By Carl Kozlowski 12/26/2013
If the Occupy Wall Street movement had any lasting impact, it was in embedding upon the American public consciousness that there is a dangerous income inequality building in our society. People in the top 1 percent of our society are the new kings of our economy and, by extension, our entire way of living, with the rest of us sliding into serfdom.
Two new movies — both debuting Christmas Day — depict distinctly different visions of this problem. Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” offers a shocking yet often funny and epic immersion into the debauched life of 1980s financial jetsetter Jordan Belfort. And “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is writer-director Ben Stiller’s take on the classic James Thurber short story of a nearly anonymous office drone and fellow 99-percenter fantasizing his way through life just to make it tolerable.
An overwhelming and overstuffed display of debauchery and greed, “The Wolf of Wall Street” follows Belfort’s exploits over the course of four years as he rises from being a young newlywed with ethics to becoming an utterly craven manipulator of both people and the law. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in fine fire-breathing form, Belfort is corrupted by his first boss (Matthew McConnaughey), who encourages him to drink a lot of alcohol and start using cocaine in order to be competitive with the insanely fast-paced lifestyles of his peers.
When that initial job shuts down due to corruption at the firm, Belfort takes a position selling penny stocks — largely worthless offerings that trade for a few pennies per share — and applies his high-end sales techniques to this under-the-radar financial racket. He soon is raking in a huge income and leads his colleagues into rebranding themselves as a long-standing trading firm with a largely fictional history.
As the money rolls in, he befriends and partners with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a jovial yet none-too-bright family friend who seems to go along with and even escalate Jordan’s bad behaviors. But as they get too flashy for their own good and draw attention to their operation from a by-the-books federal agent (Kyle Chandler), they begin a dangerous game of chicken with the feds in order to see who will back off first.
While “Wolf” is made with impressive skill and a dazzling pace by Scorsese, it is also an exhausting exercise in excess. He’s basically made “Goodfellas” for Wall Street and substitutes a wave of flesh and sex for that prior film’s over-the-top violence, all while keeping the drug-fueled paranoia.
Scorsese and his ace leading duo of DiCaprio and Hill make some astonishingly awful behavior very funny, but given a moment to reflect, viewers might start to wonder what’s wrong with themselves for doing so. Eventually, like a drunken party guest you wish would just leave, all the reckless behavior eventually becomes tiresome no matter how many attempts are made to be funny.
Meanwhile, “Mitty” is a lot more fitting for its Christmas Day release, telling a powerfully uplifting story that anyone can enjoy. The movie stars Stiller as the title character, a humble man who works in the basement at the legendary Life magazine in its photo procurement and processing department.
Mitty’s life is hopelessly boring and he constantly drifts into daydreams in which he heroically saves the day amid outlandish adventures, such as leaping off a high subway platform and into a burning apartment across the street to save people and a dog from a fire when in reality he just hears a baby crying while waiting for his morning train. He is also too timid to approach the cute new woman at the magazine (Kristen Wiig).
But when a corporate takeover that will result in mass layoffs is announced and Mitty can’t find a photo that their top photographer (Sean Penn) insists has to be the cover image for the last issue, he has to finally make the leap into taking action and saving the day for real.
That adventure is an amusing one, but more unexpectedly, Stiller has managed to create a true epic film that sends Mitty to Greenland, Iceland and ultimately Afghanistan as he surmounts evermore incredible challenges in his quest to find the photographer and ask where the lost photo might be. Yet when he does learn what it is and where it went, the answers come in a surprisingly intimate and personal scale that leaves viewers with a stirring consideration of where the American dream is going and about life itself.
While one has to wonder what Paramount Pictures was thinking in deciding to release “Wolf” on Christmas Day, “Mitty” is a perfect present for families. Its jaw-dropping adventures — including outracing an explosive volcano — and whimsically funny moments are refreshingly devoid of smut and innuendo, with barely any inappropriate language to be found.
This was a dream project of Stiller’s for more than a decade, but he had to overcome the easy labeling of himself as a mere comedic lightweight in order to take the reins of a story with such worldwide scope. The fact that he pulls it off is impressive and should give hope to the Everyman and Everywoman viewers to not give up on their own deepest wishes.