Review, “The Wolf of Wall Street” – **** stars (out of ****)
Alex’s Favorite Movie of 2013
Released December 25, 2013
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terrence Winter
Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 179 minutes
Budget: $100 million
Worldwide Box Office: $392 million (Scorsese’s biggest international hit to date, unadjusted)
WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Of course, it’s adapted from a true story, so the facts are a point of public record. Proceed with caution or, you know, just watch the movie first.
Every year, I struggle to motivate myself to actually, you know, watch new movies that come out in theaters. And every year I invariably stumble into several borderline (and some not-so-borderline) cinematic atrocities that are utterly rudderless in their plotting and utterly lacking in any spark or creative inspiration. Usually, these hail from the cruel unfeeling bowels of Hollywood. If I have to watch one more dreary 9/11-callback city destruction scene in an expensive Hollywood pseudo-blockbuster (these gluttonous monstrosities usually cost so much coin that they barely make it back now) I may just shoot myself in the face. Why do people think we want to see movies like that? Movies with nothing to say, all a dull cacophony amounting to little more than just so much noise. All remorseless violence and Nolan-esque heavy-handed self-seriousness. I saw so many big Hollywood movies in 2013 (and make no mistake, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” sporting a reported budget of $100 million, is a big Hollywood movie) that were all so empty, so unappealingly earnest, so overly-plotted, and so instantly familiar in an aggressive and ugly way. “The Hobbit,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Elysium,” “Pacific Rim,” “A Good Day To Die Hard,” “Man of Steel,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Thor: The Dark World.” I could go on. But I digress. Every year, I must confess, I almost give up on new movies. And every year, around the time the “prestige” flicks come around, I find a new, fresh movie to champion. A movie that reinvigorates the entire enterprise of theatrical movie consumption. In 2013, that movie was “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It was so good it was a little evil.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is probably my favorite movie in the last eight years (since “No Country For Old Men” in 2007, which was fucking spectacular too) because I’m a lunatic. But also because it’s a classic rise-and-fall tale… except it’s tracking the ascent and descent of a devil. Essentially “Aliens” for the New York Mercantile Exchange set, it’s alternately terrifying and hilarious in depicting testosterone-addled gluttony at its most unfettered. While critics both professional and amateur have hated on Jordan Belfort, its titular enfant terrible, I would posit that his behavior, while despicably amoral, is intensely and undeniably watch-able. Even though the movie clocks in at a dense 2 hours and 59 minutes, it’s a piece that really MOVES.
The latest Martin Scorsese masterpiece (damn straight I said “masterpiece”) is a relatively amoral movie about relatively amoral people separating suckered investors from their capital. It is NOT really an indictment of these folks so much as it is a celebration of their gluttonous human awfulness, if that makes any sense. It basks in their vices to fantastic and haunting effect, and it does so with athletic visual showmanship; with pristine and verbose dialogue brimming with some of my favorite linguistic vulgarities (curse words and stockbroker shop talk); and with some bar-setting performances from actors known and unknown.
I kind of love that this movie’s reception has been so mixed. But I hate the vitriol being affixed to the debates over its quality or relative lack thereof — the point of watching an interesting movie is to experience it WITH OTHER PEOPLE. If some of those other people hated the flick, that’s absolutely fine. The fun thing about experiencing movies — or, at least, stimulating movies — specifically, over entertainment that can be a bit more personally consumed (like music or literature), is that they invite a healthy discourse by the very nature of their being so public. Tens of millions of people have seen “The Wolf of Wall Street.” If half of them didn’t hate it, I’d almost be disappointed.
Love it or hate it, “The Wolf of Wall Street” incites PASSIONATE responses from those who have seen it, primarily because it strives to do something a little different: graft the “Goodfellas” formula onto the white collar crime set. It’s the kind of movie it’s impossible not to have a strong opinion about. And I think every movie should try to be that. I know that “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas” were all derided for their excessive brutality upon their initial releases. I’m glad Martin Scorsese has hit another home run (this is his best movie since “Goodfellas,” by the way), and I’m glad it’s dividing so many families and friends. Is it an infallibly perfect film? No, but it is a great one. It is practically littered with bloat, but that is almost the point, and really the movie kind of earns it. That being said, longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker could have easily trimmed about 15 minutes of superfluous red-herring plots out of this bad boy and I don’t think anyone would have missed them (so long as the drugs and sex were not trimmed one iota), and I really wish Scorsese hadn’t included the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” in this movie because it totally doesn’t fit (and also, because I really don’t like that song). But these are pretty minor quibbles, really. I personally want to see the 4-hour edit that would never have gotten an R-rating, but that’s me. The thing is undeniably awesome. I only wish Roger Ebert had lived long enough to check this out; Ebert reviews of Scorsese were always a staple of my absorption of the man’s movies in the past.
One problem that a lot of Baby Boom-generation folks seem to consistently have with it is that there isn’t a grounding, Everyman-type good guy character for the audience to emotionally connect to. It’s just Jordan Belfort and his morally corrupt entourage, and I think that left a lot of people feeling rudderless. But not every movie has to hold your hand. Whatever you think of this guy, he’s magnetic. You’re not going to turn away from the sins he commits.
A note on the actors: this is certainly no longer an original sentiment, judging from all the rave notices he received (plus an Oscar nomination, which he lost to his “Wolf” co-star Matthew McConaughey playing Matthew McConaughey with AIDS), but Leonardo DiCaprio turns in the best performance of his career thus far in Jordan Belfort, the titular lupine party-boy con artist who opens up a corrupt brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, with a bunch of unscrupulous cronies at his beck and call. The most important of these is Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff, a fictionalized compendium of a few real-life figures, who serves as basically Belfort’s right-hand scumbag. Hill is fantastic here, full of energy and impeccable comic timing, even in heightened slow-motion. There is a party scene at Belfort’s house in Long Island, where Hill puts on an absolute comic tour de force: portraying the influence of a powerful Quaalude high, he simulates an excitable brainstorming session AND a Margot Robbie-induced self-flagellation (which, to be fair, many of us would probably do on Quaaludes), and he’s hilarious. A great semi-cameo is turned in by Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s gleefully bent first boss, Mark Hannah. Let’s be honest here — it’s McConaughey’s best acting work, too. Kyle Chandler plugs in another reliably solid good-guy Kyle Chandler performance to accommodate the stodgy rule-abiding FBI agent, Patrick Denham, who in the film eventually brings Belfort down (the real-life agent was Gregory Coleman).
But there is one actor who towers above the rest. While DiCaprio’s role be at the center of the movie’s warped ethos, and its mean black twisted soul, another performance steals the show. Margot Robbie, a gorgeous then-23 year-old Australian who may be the most fantastic special effect ever canvassed across a 40’ movie screen, just kills it as the thickly Bay Ridge-accented Naomi Belfort (a modified variation of Belfort’s real-life second wife, Nadine). Her performance in this is absolutely note-perfect, from her initial coy flirtations to her later prolific romping with her hubby on all kinds of surfaces to her ensuing frustrated stasis to, finally, her resigned desertion. Also, this may be unprofessional, but hot damn she looks like a billion dollars from every conceivable angle. Can she be in every movie they make from now on? Please? FUCKING PLEASE.