Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street Movie Review

These guys who work on Wall Street and idolize characters like Gordon Gecko and live by the credo that “greed is good,” who make every decision based on how much money, power, drugs, or sex it might get them are the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street. Previously it was Boiler Room, which was meant to show the consequences of living that life, but became, like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street before it, a clarion call for a new generation of upper crust wannabes who took entirely the wrong lessons from the movies.

Jordan Belfort is the subject, his life brought to the screen by Terence Winter, who adapted Belfort’s memoir about his years as the head of an upstart brokerage firm that made countless millions off “pump and dump” schemes involving penny stocks through the 90s. In the hands of director Martin Scorsese, Belfort becomes another obsessed protagonist, a man so enamored of his own lifestyle and charisma, so beset by overindulgence that he is brought down by over-consumption. And he consumes it all. In narration he explains that he abused every drug under the sun: cocaine; alcohol; Quaaludes; Valium; marijuana; sex; and money. He leads his team, including founding partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) in an absurdist modern-day reenactment of Roman debauchery. There’s partying in the office involving dwarf-tossing, strippers, prostitutes, and drugs of course. House parties highlight more of the same. And more drugs. There’s a drug-addled crash landing of a helicopter in Jordan’s back yard and the sinking of a 120-foot yacht in the Mediterranean (both based on real incidents).

The plot only needs to move Jordan from his early days in a Wall Street firm where his first mentor (Matthew McConaughey, still wearing his wiry physique from Dallas Buyers Club) teaches him the importance of drugs, money, and masturbation in the life of a broker, to his eventual prosecution by the Feds for money laundering and fraud. Everything that happens in between is just fodder for gossip rags when it involves celebrities. But as directed by Scorsese, becomes a high energy, rip-roaring Bacchanal. He pulls out all the stops: flash pans; hard cuts; rock and roll soundtrack; a voiceover narration a la Goodfellas that habitually breaks the fourth wall; technically dazzling tracking shots; insanity; shouting; shouting; and more shouting!!

This isn’t Scorsese at his best, but rather his most unbridled. Gone is the ferocious energy of Mean Streets and Raging Bull that lit up audience forty years ago. Times are different. That kind of filmmaking is more commonplace as everyone wants to imitate Scorsese, including the man himself. And he aims for broad comedy over and over again throughout. I suppose he deserves a modicum of praise for taking an unorthodox approach to the material. The Wolf of Wall Street plays like a farcical version of Goodfellas.

Jonah Hill’s performance should be tragic, but is rendered a little heavy on the amusing side of tragicomic. Jokes abound about Donnie’s marriage to his first cousin. There’s also a really uncomfortable feeling that accompanies the comic sensibilities of some of the more serious drug scenes. Not that I’m accusing Scorsese and Winter of glamorizing this lifestyle. I think the people who are predisposed to being in thrall to the allure of if have already demonstrated a complete ignorance of the lessons to be gleaned from these stories in the past. No amount of sermonizing would turn them off, so why not show it for what it is when these guys are living the moment? And unfortunately for them it was probably a lot of fun to feel on top of the world every day.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a phenomenal actor. I have loved and applauded so many of his performances. But I think he has truly missed the mark here. His amp is turned up to eleven from the get go so that he has nowhere to rise to. And just to sell that point even further, Rob Reiner plays his father, a straight-shooting accountant who also does a great deal of shouting at eleven. DiCaprio shouts so much at the very limits of his lung and vocal capacity that I thought I might pop a vein. We get it – Jordan Belfort  lived an extreme lifestyle. But a measure of restraint would have been most welcome. When DiCaprio misses out on an Oscar nomination next week, there will be those crying about his being robbed again. They will be wrong. He was robbed perhaps when he missed for Titanic and without a doubt it was a crime he wasn’t nominated for Catch Me If You Can and again for RevolutionaryRoad. Those are nuanced and brilliant. This is tiresome screaming and yelling. Not of the Al Pacino bombast type, but more in the misdirected, let’s push the envelope mode. Jonah Hill also has gotten a lot of attention for his performance. It’s certainly more restrained than most of his cast mates, but Hill got his Moneyball nod because people were so impressed he could get through a dramatic film without cracking a smile. This time I think everyone has been fooled by wide glasses and goofy prosthetic teeth. He’s good, to be sure, but Hill is not a great actor.

There’s no denying Scorsese’s ability to put a compelling piece of visual storytelling on the screen. The film easily sweeps you up and drags you kicking and screaming for the full length of the ride, which clocks in a tad too long even if it is all eminently watchable and generally entertaining. As a vision of the boys club atmosphere of a Wall Street firm, it’s unparalleled. The amount of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace is astounding and yet we see women working for Jordan and soaking up the same lifestyle. Questions as to the validity of many of the seeming tall tales in the film are inevitable, but we must keep in mind that Belfort’s own memoir has not truly been fact checked and his movie character is early on established as an unreliable narrator. There’s a much better movie hiding in here somewhere and the sad truth is that I think Scorsese could have made it.

1 comment:

  1. Like its main character, this movie is shallow, over-the-top, thin on plot & characterizations. And yet, it's absolutely entertaining because of the performances.