Hunter S. Thompson

The Wolf of Wall Street

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”  There are few among us whose lives embody the words of famed journalist Hunter S. Thompson, but some people come close.  Jordan Belfort was such an individual, setting Wall Street ablaze in the early 90s like a real life Gordon Gekko on crack.  No, really.  On crack.

Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Great Gatsby) began humbly, learning the ropes as a rookie stockbroker at a modest Wall Street firm under the tutelage of senior broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McCounaghey, Dallas Buyers Club).  Hanna’s words of advice would form the blueprint for Belfort’s lifestyle, with Hanna advising him on everything from drug usage to a schedule for self-pleasuring.  Belfort did well for himself, a natural salesman gifted with a silver tongue.  That gift of gab would serve him well after his first brokerage house folded and he found himself selling penny stocks in a Podunk “firm” off the beaten Wall Street path.  It’s a huge step down at first glance, but Belfort quickly realizes an untapped gold mine.

Soon, Belfort was suckering pitiful souls out of their investment in a pump and dump scheme that left him with eyes on even bigger sights.  He recruited a handful of buddies back home, various hustlers in their own right.  With a trusted core in place, he opened his own firm called Stratton Oakmont, applying all that he’d learned to much bigger fish.  Dealing exclusively with wealthy investors, their profits increased even more and they were making money hand over fist.  Raucous office parties including hookers and cocaine were not uncommon, and capitalist hedonism ruled the day.

The film chronicles Belfort’s meteoric rise and subsequent fall from the precipice of a lifestyle filled with sex, drugs and a never-ending supply of money and women.  Scorsese effectively pulled back the curtain, exposing a lifestyle that few of us will ever witness.  Belfort’s indifference about the lives he ruined took a backseat to his zealous pursuit of the almighty dollar.  It was a familiar motif, with greed serving as faceless antagonist.  Eventually Belfort will burn out, and if the law doesn’t get him, the drugs will.

DiCaprio’s character was abhorrent, but there was a devil-may-care affability that I found likable – at least initially.  If you like to root for the bad guys in movies, it’s one of many reasons you’ll love this film.  DiCaprio has the astounding ability to immerse himself in a role so deeply that I don’t even see him anymore.  He was Jordan Belfort.  Although Belfort’s professional judgment was morally bereft, DiCaprio showed the duality of the character through the loyalty of his personal relationships – particularly his friendships.  Enter Jonah Hill (This Is The End) as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s neighbor who observes his lifestyle and wants in.   Hill is really a gifted comedic actor, evincing versatility with a perfect balance of humor and levity.  From Superbad to Moneyball, his range is impressive and was on full display here.

Belfort’s story was the inspiration behind 2000’s Boiler Room, and comparisons to that movie and others of its ilk such as Wall Street are nearly inevitable.  Where Wolf surpasses its predecessors is in its deft storytelling, courtesy of Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) and Belfort’s source material.  Furthermore, Martin Scorsese hasn’t missed a beat as a filmmaker.  The same man that brought us seminal classics Goodfellas and Casino nearly 20 years ago is just as adept behind the camera now as he was back then.  In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street reminded me of Goodfellas in many ways, from the immediate narration of its protagonist to the hallmark Scorsese score.

The film was unquestionably a vehicle for DiCaprio’s talents, but the supporting performances were nearly as strong, with impressive turns from the aforementioned Hill and Margot Robbie (Pan Am), who smoldered as Belfort’s mistress turned second wife Naomi.  I initially resisted the prevailing notion that DiCaprio was one of the preeminent actors of our generation, but I’m beginning to agree.  His resume tells no lies, and this performance ranks right up there with the likes of his turn in The Departed, although he did not receive an Oscar nomination for that role.  He’ll certainly receive one here, and he couldn’t be more deserving.  He and Scorsese are every bit the tandem that Scorsese and DeNiro once were, and this pairing might be their best.  Grade: A.

This post first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

The Rum Diary

I didn’t know what to think of The Rum Diary when I first saw the trailer, but I was intrigued.  It’s based on the semi-autobiographical (but fictional) novel of the same name by famed author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  Thompson is a pop culture icon, known for his ardent rejection of conformity and for pioneering “gonzo” journalism.

Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland) is always a potential draw for me, though I don’t usually find his quirkiness appealing.  In The Rum Diary he portrays journalist Paul Kemp with a relatable quality not found in most of his roles.  Kemp is in 1960’s Puerto Rico to write for a fledgling newspaper.  He wants to comment on the political turmoil in San Juan, but his editor wants fluff pieces to appease their readership.  Kemp decides to take what he can get, and initially he’s hired for the mundane task of writing horoscopes.

The Rum Diary was patterned after Hunter S. Thompson’s brief time in Puerto Rico when he applied (and was rejected) for a job at a newspaper, but still made friends and acclimated himself to the local area.  Puerto Rico plays like a town where the rum runs freely and following the rules is optional. When Kemp meets a former newspaper employee turned hotshot named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight), he gets a chance to line his pockets and keep his editor at bay.  Sanderson and some other influential but corrupt locals want to develop untouched Puerto Rican soil and need Kemp to insert certain viewpoints in his articles to soften up the public when they hear about the increased taxes they will have to pay to fund the project.  In addition to trying to bridge the gap between his personal and professional spheres, Kemp’s life is complicated by his attraction to Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard, Drive Angry), a fetching blonde he meets by chance only to find out later that she belongs to another.

Again, Paul Kemp is loosely patterned after Hunter S. Thompson.  To that end, he’s a raging alcoholic, but quite an endearing chap. Depp is very good as the hapless but earnest journalist trying to do relevant work without selling out.  His time in Puerto Rico is one misadventure after another, as his friendship and arrangement with Sanderson begins to unravel when his affinity for Chenault leads to trouble.  Everyone needs a trusty sidekick, and Kemp’s is a fellow journalist named Sala.  Together they drink and stumble their way through the streets of San Juan, and it doesn’t seem like these reporters ever do much writing.

I don’t really know what to make of The Rum Diary.  I enjoyed it because it was entertaining, and Puerto Rico was an inviting setting tailor made for debauchery.  It was a fun and interesting movie, as I wondered what would become of Chenault and Kemp and whether the newspaper would eventually fold.  However, there was an unmistakable lull in the film, where the viewer wondered just what the hell was going on.  One scene in particular was very trippy, as Kemp and Sala endure a drug-induced stupor.

It’s hard to encapsulate just what this film was all about.  It played like a very interesting “day in the life” of so-and-so type of movie, but I’m not sure if there was a larger point to be made.  I haven’t read the book, but I’ll bet it was a page-turner, if the movie was any indication.  I’m just not sure everyone will like it or “get” it.  From a visual standpoint I thought it was cool and funny at times, but it wasn’t too deep or meaningful.  Fans of the late Thompson may appreciate the manic, boozy feel of Kemp’s tale – but everyone else may be a little ho hum about it.  If you’re a fan of Depp or Thompson or you just want to leer at Amber Heard, check it out.  Otherwise, this will make a nice little flick to catch on HBO in a few months.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2011/11/the-rum-diary-review-a-boozy-joyride/ and was reprinted with permission.