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The Wolf of Wall Street

Nominated for Best Picture at the 86th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Actor(Leonardo DiCaprio)at the 86th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Supporting Actor(Jonah Hill)at the 86th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Director(Martin Scorsese)at the 86th Annual Academy Awards

Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay(Terence Winter)at the 86th Annual Academy Awards

You can spot the trap that it’s easy to fall into here, right? If I dub Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “The Wolf of Wall Street” overblown, unwieldy, formless and bloated, the supporters are going to say something like, “that’s the point”. But if I claim that it’s brilliant, fascinating and highly watchable, the detractors will spout that I’m just another blind, unrealistic member of the Marty cult. Hmmm, which way to go? There are moments of pure Scorsese genius in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, and I wanted to stand up and applaud every time I spotted one. I’m on record as not being enamored of either 2011’s “Hugo” or 2010’s “Shutter Island”, and I’ve accused Mr. Scorsese of “slipping” of late. But am I a fan of the acclaimed director overall? Let’s put it this way: in the last 35 years(or, since I was roughly thirteen years old), outside of concert films and documentaries, Martin Scorsese has had a hand in directing 18 feature films(1989’s “Life Lessons”, was part of a three short film anthology from Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen—and it’s the best of the trio). I saw 16 of them in an actual theater(for the record, the two I missed were the limited releases of 1985’s “After Hours” and 1997’s “Kundun”), so I believe that confirms that I’m a Scorsese devotee. But I have to accuse him of excess in “WoWS”, because at times that 179-minute running time was a labor. And I breezed through Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 242-minute “Hamlet” at the Paris in Manhattan back in the day. Just what exactly did famed Scorsese film editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut here? Not much, it appears. Also, there’s a very Tarantino-esque feeling to at least a couple of scenes in “WoWS”, and I’m old enough to remember when Tarantino’s work was said to contain a Scorsese element. The more things change…

Jordan Belfort(a very good and exceedingly charming, Leonardo DiCaprio)is a fresh, spanking-new stockbroker on the Wall Street scene. He’s in his mid-20’s, and an enthusiastic, modestly-raised go-getter from the outer boroughs. After starting work at a big firm, and an unconventional pep-talk from his boss(a gaunt and hilarious Matthew McConaughey)—the market crashes on the infamous Black Monday of 1987. Out of work almost as soon as he began, his young(and soon to be cast aside)wife convinces him to take a lower-level broker job dealing in penny stocks at a Long Island “boiler room” located at a strip mall. Jordan immediately spots a window for combining his learned “pitching” style with the higher commission rate of the so-called penny stocks. And before you know it, he’s raking in the dough. Never mind that he’s bilking unsuspecting middle-incomers out of their life savings and college funds for their kids—Jordan is rapidly becoming an unqualified success. And when he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a man named Donnie Azoff(a fine and ultra-sleazy Jonah Hill)from his apartment complex, they decide to siphon a “few good men” from the Long Island outfit and begin their own firm. As fast as you can say Swedish bank account, everyone is awash in cash, drugs and wanton women. And top-dog Belfort is so filthy rich that before long he’s a subject of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”. And then there’s booze, drugs, money and women. Then more, booze, drugs, money and women. And despite Scorsese’s reputation for molding Oscar-level performances for an array of award-winning actresses, close to none of the women make much of a performance impact. Not even the stunning Margot Robbie as Naomi, the trophy wife that he throws middle-class first spouse Teresa(Cristin Milioti)over for. There is, however, the quite good Joanne Lumley as Aunt Emma, who matches wits and charm with Belfort in a couple of key scenes. And then, of course, there’s the spirited, straight-arrow FBI Agent Denham(a keen Kyle Chandler)who decides it’s his mission to make sure that Jordan’s kingdom comes tumbling down.

That “The Wolf of Wall Street” has been set up as a “black comedy” is overwhelmingly obvious. It’s practically a Roman orgy with punchlines, although most of the bacchanal seemed to remain firmly in the PG-13 category for me—despite the R rating. At least as far as what you see, a lot more is simply suggested. But there is a degree of too muchness here—how many scenes of drug-induced, wild-partying insanity is enough? Methinks there’s possibly a superb 135-minute movie lost in this three-hour romp, and it’s my feeling that the Scorsese of two or three decades ago, might have been able to coax it out. But 71-year old Marty either couldn’t or wouldn’t delete the excess. I’ve read a lot of reviewers that are comparing “WoWS” to 1990’s “Goodfellas”, and the parallels are there. But I think it also shares a kinship with 1995’s “Casino”, in its tale of privelege gone crazy, in a decadent time and place, ultimately leading to a predictable downfall. Yeah, “Goodfellas” had that too, but you somehow managed to like those guys—even though they were hardened criminals and murderers. It was almost impossible not to like DiCaprio’s character in “WoWS”(Leo’s charisma is achingly right for this), although I’m sure in real life that Belfort dude is a scumbag. I didn’t like anyone in “Casino”, and in fairness, I used to think that was a detraction. I find it to be a maverick approach now, and “Casino” has steadily grown in quality in my “humble” estimation. Plus, “Casino” seems almost compressed compared to “WoWS”, regardless of their similar runtimes. Does this mean there is the possibility that I’ll look back on “WoWS” with a rosier remembrance too? Yeah, I guess there’s a chance—but I don’t think so. Besides, all I can account for is the present time of winter 2013-14 right now. And for that period, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” exhibits some of the director’s finest instincts in years, but unfortunately showcases a few of his weaker habits as well. It’s a step up from his last two motion pictures, but it’s far from his best work.     Grade:  B-

next review up:  “The Croods”

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8 comments on “The Wolf of Wall Street

  1. I completely agree with you when you say that somewhere in this movie is a really good crisp 135 min movie, no two thoughts about that at all. That being said, I would like to believe that Scorsese probably was a little too honest to the memoir on which the story was based on.

    My review has been put up at http://mahabore.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-wolf-of-wall-street-movie-review/

    • Jairam, I’ve read and respect your take on this film, but I’ll have to again come to the conclusion that you are way too polite. You may find me to harsh, but I actually wish I was as unforgiving as the critics I respect most. And at least one of those completely panned “WoWS”. Immediately, I have to take issue with the thought that the “white collar crimes” didn’t hurt anyone. They HURT many, and destroyed them financially. Physical hurt…no. But are you better off being held up by a thug on the street for a hundred bucks, or having your entire future wiped out? Belfort and his cronies knew this, and they simply didn’t care. I’m torn on whether or not Scorsese needed to make this bilking of the public more of a focus, but to simply conclude that he was being “too honest” is not enough for me. Thank you for your comment…and keep them coming! ML

      • Point well taken ML, but yes, like you say I am almost always a little too polite, for lack of a better term 🙂

        The point you make about white collar crimes and that they are short-changed primarily because they didn’t ‘hurt’ anyone and that the victims allowed themselves to be conned is valid and simply doesn’t cut the ice with me either.

  2. Thanks for reminding me about the stunning Kundun! I didn’t recall that it was Scorsese! We were lucky enough to see that on the big screen (maybe at the Zeigfeld?) It was visually dazzling. Maybe on a great tv it could capture some of it’s magic?? I have to say I wasn’t too moved to go see WoWS in the theater for exactly the reasons you mentioned. It’s a netflix for me.

    • Sandy, I do recall “Kundun” being at the Ziegfeld way back in 1997, because I friend had invited me in to see it. The perfect venue, and I’m sorry I missed it at the time—but duly impressed that you experienced it in an actual theater! Also, I can’t fathom how “WoWS” could possibly appeal to intelligent women, like yourself. Just about every female in it is either a hooker, stripper, cypher or eye candy. And Scorsese is renowned for his direction of women! ML

      • And, for some reason the blog is not letting me reply to mahabore’s latest comment, but your politeness is appealing, Jairam. And I’m happy to read that you’re not letting those bums “off the hook” for losing other people’s money. ML

  3. Good review Mark. It’s a long one for sure, but while watching it, the smile I had at the beginning, never seemed to leave my face. Not even when people were doing some really terrible, morally reprehensible things. Which was most of the duration of the damn flick! And yet, I was still entertained nonetheless.

    • “The Aviator” was only 9 minutes shorter than “WoWS”, but the narrative supported it, and I loved every minute of it. The fine “Gangs of New York” was only 3 minutes less than that. Length, if used well, is never an issue. When bungled—it can feel like an eternity. As stated, there were scenes in “WoWS” that had me giddy. Then others where I wished Marty would simply move it along. ML

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