Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Baby, You're a Rich Man: The Wolf of Wall Street and Pain & Gain

In the family of movies observing and exploring the American Dream and excess and money and power, you could see The Wolf of Wall Street and Pain & Gain as this: the two brothers, one wearing a suit and making lots of money (no matter how illegal that might be), the other being a little brother pumped up on steroids, jealous of his big brother's wealthy life, so goes on to find a way to make money, fast. Add to that, The Wolf of Wall Street is made by "greatest American director ever" Martin Scorsese, and Pain & Gain is made by "butt of every American director joke" Michael Bay. They seem like they're at opposite ends of the spectrum. And while The Wolf of Wall Street is infinitely better than Pain & Gain, there's nothing that really causes me to write off Pain & Gain.

Just to preface this post: each of these films deal with the American Dream. Each of these films have been mistaken for glorifying it. Which of course, you can't ignore when big name stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Dwayne Johnson are in these movies living the rich life. But I'd be hard pressed to find another film in 2013 - save for Gravity and Captain Phillips - which left me with a sick stomach.

Both of these films exist in a world where they're based on true stories that couldn't possibly be true. Even though Pain & Gain takes far more "artistic liberties" with its material to make it even more "Michael Bay friendly", there's actually a part when Dwayne Johnson finds himself barbecuing body parts, and then all of sudden we get a freeze frame of this ludicrous scene with a subtitle that reads, "This is still a true story". I loved that. Both Pain & Gain and The Wolf of Wall Street are incredibly self aware.

That self awareness, particularly, is what I think makes The Wolf of Wall Street fly. Jordan Belfort, I think, is a terrifying person. Lately I've been watching a few interviews with him, and I found one that he did on a NZ morning show. He just does not stop talking. And what's he's saying isn't necessarily right, but that's no matter - he has this insane amount of courage and self-confidence, the feeling that no matter how crazy his schemes are, it is all perfectly okay. At the end of this interview, the faces of the hosts looked overwhelmed, and all they can say was "wow, I'm exhausted". So, it is kind of hard to get into the head of someone so exhausting, and more importantly, see the world as he does but also be able to observe the debauchery from the outside. And this is possibly where people confused the self-awareness as "glorifying". Putting Jordan there to make the plot, to break fourth wall and directly talk to the audience, makes it seem like the film is glorifying his actions.

News flash: Jordan is the one glorifying his actions. The film is telling it how it is. If you think that it is glorifying this kind of debauchery, then you only have yourself to blame - because you're into Jordan's mind a bit too deep.

In terms of presenting us with the American Dream, I definitely think out of all of the brothers and sisters of excess, The Wolf of Wall Street definitely does it best. How? The film opens with scenes out of Jordan Belfort's life. He's listing all of the things he has:
My name is Jordan Belfort. Not him. Me. That's right. I'm a former member of the middle class raised by two accountants in a tiny apartment in Bayside Queens. The year I turned 26 as the head of my own brokerage firm I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week. No, no, no. My Ferrari was white like Don Johnson's in Miami Vice, not red.
America, and perhaps the rest of the world, lives in an age when reality TV rules. Where people can broadcast to the world all of the things they have, all of the things they appear to be. And that really struck me. The money, power and excess is something that is dreamt of, but I think that the ability to be able to share your story to the world and have celluloid edited to show your perfect vision is the new pinnacle, the real toxicity to the dream. It's why we have blogs, YouTube, hell, even Tumblrs. Technology allows us to show our perfect visions of our lives. The best thing is that we have Belfort making an advertisement for his motivational speaking program, with everything perfectly put into place - a glorified informercial featuring a soppy, scripted story from the "little people", and Belfort placing himself in front of his mansion, flash car and helicopter - until he gets arrested whilst filming this very advertisement. It's a perfect way to set up and disintegrate the "American Dream". Sure, it is only a small part of the debauchery, but it puts the seal on the cautionary tale.

If you haven't seen Pain & Gain, which, judging by everyone red flagging Michael Bay, you probably haven't, just check out the trailer. It tells you pretty much everything you need to know (plus, it has a Sleigh Bells song which is awesome).

Pain & Gain is kinda like that, to a lesser extent. The film doesn't do the whole fourth wall thing - because let's face it, I'm pretty sure it is only acceptable when Marty does it - but it does have all of the characters giving us narrated accounts of their thoughts. Which is a bit annoying. Pain & Gain is by all accounts a darker story, as it concerns the deaths of a few people. However, it is a Michael Bay film. It would have been a very different film if someone else took it on. Perhaps it wouldn't have had as many unnecessary explosions and staged gun fights and general feelings of "hey, let's just take the piss here". Yes, it does glorify the American Dream. We have several scenes of Mark Wahlberg jumping around in glee because he has a house with a pool and great views. We have several scenes of Dwayne Johnson hugging his girlfriend played by Bar Paly (whose performance is a complete and utter parody that I can't decide whether it is good or not) in front of casinos, while she has bags and bags of designer clothing. We have several scenes of cars driving fast down the freeway. Heck, it looks like heaven.

But let's not forget that these guys kidnapped a rich guy, then attempted to murder this guy so they could have his money. And then, when one of the guys ran out of money due to spending everything he had in one pop, he considered suicide, but then decided it was okay to get him and his buddies together again to murder a couple of people. Yup.

Is Pain & Gain still a cautionary tale? Was it ever looking to be one? Who knows. But there's one line from the movie that really stuck with me:
"I've watched a lot of movies, Paul, I know what I'm doing!"
I'm not about to start the argument of "violence in movies obviously influences violence in real life", because it is really the people who influence their violence. But this line also had similar vibes to what The Wolf of Wall Street was showing: that perhaps the real American Dream is people living the lives that have been projected for them. The lives of glamour and power. This may not be true to the story - which ended in murder and then two of the perpetrators were sentenced to death - but boy, did those guys love walking away from explosions and getting into gun fights. It made them look badass. Like The Bling Ring, it is all about the image. And it is only fitting that Michael Bay, maker of movies for teenage boys, was there to make a movie about men living out the things they saw as teenage boys, and getting rich in the process. With a bit more work, this could have been a grilling Hollywood satire.

Just a side note: Dwayne Johnson is pretty much a revelation in this film. Which is weird, because I can't stand the guy, but his performance in this was fantastic.

I could get into the side of these films which explores the cocaine, quaaludes, prostitutes, fast cars: the excess. But I just wanted to take a second (or a few hours, considering this post is almost as long as being able to count all the "fucks" in The Wolf of Wall Street) to acknowledge how pop culture is having a similar effect on the American Dream. Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring also do that, but I think The Wolf of Wall Street and Pain & Gain present it in a better way - a smaller, more subtle way, but something I found impossible to ignore.

Oh and hey, Leonardo DiCaprio for all the awards, guys.


  1. Awesome post. Pretty much agree with everything here.

    "I've watched a lot of movies, Paul, I know what I'm doing!" is probably my favourite film quote of the year. Not only is it incredibly true for myself, but as you pointed out, it reflects so much of the movie and this trend of projecting images vs reality that we saw in so many 2013 films and basically, life.

    1. Yes, that was probably my favourite film quote of the year too. It is pretty much my go to line in life...but I don't kill people and all that jazz.

  2. I really enjoyed your article. I feel better knowing I'm not the only one who has compared both of these movies. "The American Dream" is a familiar topic in Hollywood. How these two movies have portrayed it, in my opinion, is the Scarface setup. You start from the bottom, get rich, and then it's never enough. You become greedy and eventually you get busted and go to jail. I think that those who didn't enjoy the movie must have missed the point that the movies were trying to make. Greed is not good and when you become greedy and it's never enough, you will in fact pay the price. Not sure if that makes sense. Regardless, great post.

    1. Thanks! It definitely does make sense. I think that greed is the big killer in the American Dream. No matter what Gordon Gekko says, greed definitely isn't good!

  3. Great write up! This actually makes me want to see Pain and Gain now. I never really had the desire before.

    1. It is crazy weird, but I liked it enough. Better than Girl Most Likely, that's fo sho.

  4. Great stuff! I'm not sure I'll ever watch Pain & Gain, but maybe I should give it a look some time.

    1. I think it's worth a look - probably the best I've seen from Michael Bay, not that there's much competition.

  5. Been there, done that. As thrilling a filmmaker as Martin Scorsese continues to be, and as wild a performance as Leonardo DiCaprio dishes up as its morally bankrupt master of the universe, The Wolf of Wall Street seems almost entirely unnecessary.

  6. It made me not love but utterly loathe Belfort - a moral victory, perhaps, but also something of a problem, because a character who is simply detestable rapidly becomes uninteresting.

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