Thursday, January 2, 2014

"The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie
Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Rated R - Strong language, frequent drug use, graphic nudity/sex, some violence
Running Time: 179 Minutes

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a man destined to be rich. Arriving on Wall Street in his early 20s, he quickly catches the notice of the brokers above him, including Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who takes him to lunch and teaches him the secrets of his success. Soon enough, though, the market crash of the late 80s leaves Belfort jobless. Desperate, he takes a position selling penny stocks at a small accounting firm where he's shocked to find he can make 50% commission selling junk stocks to desperate losers.

Inspiration takes hold. Belfort practically takes over the place, up-selling these lame stocks with the promise of huge profits and taking massive commissions. It's not long before he starts his own firm with his neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Belfort hires a bunch of his childhood friends, most of whom are just drug dealers, and teaches them how to sell stocks over the phone.

Business booms, and Belfort's firm quickly explodes onto the Wall Street scene. And now he's got a new target: Rather than sell junk stocks to desperate people for a few thousand dollars, why not sell them to rich people for much, much more? With all of his fantastic success, Belfort's life becomes a roller coaster of debauched excess. He falls for a former model, Naomi (Margot Robbie), and it ruins his first marriage to a hair dresser Teresa (Cristin Milioti).

His office is so out of control, he's forced to hire his father "Mad" Max Belfort (Rob Reiner) to keep everyone in line. That includes declaring the bathrooms "No-fuck zones" to keep employees from having sex during working hours.

All of this catches the eye of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who becomes determined to unravel Belfort's life. But Belfort's escalating drug use and misbehavior might make that job easier...

It's always a fine time at the movies when Martin Scorsese teams up with Leo DiCaprio. I'm a big fan of previous collaborations "The Departed" and "Shutter Island," so I was very excited to see what these two came up with this time.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is a strange film, with many highs and one egregious low. The film is riotously funny, a brightly-colored film full of very dark comedy. It is filled to the brim with great performances from a talented cast, with even the smallest roles seeming perfectly filled. The film has an energy that is hard to deny, and is full of attractive, well-composed images.

But its running time is just too damn long.

I can see why the movie is three hours: it's full of fantastic material. If I'd shot that much golden footage, I wouldn't want to cut it, either. But the simple fact is that I felt exhausted coming out of the movie. Even as I was enjoying watching Belfort's life spiral hilariously out of control, I was becoming more and more painfully aware of how long I was spending sitting in this movie theatre.

Despite that, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is incredibly entertaining. DiCaprio commands the screen as he does his underlings. He's capable of whipping his employees into a fervor, standing on a stage at the front of the office he seems more like some kind of preacher than a stock broker. And make no mistake, these men and women positively worship him. And it's easy to see why. DiCaprio exudes just the right attitudes to draw you in, with a role full of rage, drive, and comedy. And even in the few precious moments when Belfort sees a glimmer of how terrible he is, DiCaprio never falters.

The rest of the film's roles are filled out with lots of talent, as well. Jonah Hill is perfect as Belfort's best bud, talking through a set of hilariously odd false teeth. There's a sense of Donnie that he's just not quite there, not quite right, and Hill nails it. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie come from Hill delivering a line almost in a whisper, with a straight face.

One of the film's best sequences involves DiCaprio and Hill's characters so high on quaaludes that they become slurring, drooling idiots on the floor. This sequence has to be seen to be believed, especially the punchline about Belfort's Lamborghini.

The rest of Belfort's buddies all get moments to shine. McConaughey's lunch scene is a howler. A scene in which the brokers are interrogated by the SEC is also gold, with the cast just delivering awkward variations of "I have no recollection of that."

Probably the film's most serious role goes to Naomi, Belfort's second wife. While Margot Robbie has no shortage of comedy herself, she's also the one who seems the most traumatized by Belfort's actions. Later in the film, more and more of the interaction between Robbie and DiCaprio are screaming matches. There is a scene late in the film at the absolute low point of their marriage that is almost shockingly out of place considering the comedic tone of the rest of the film, but both actors grab hold of it and don't let go. It's this scene that often makes a lot of the straight comedy sequences in the film feel almost inconsequential - as though the film's promise as a dramedy is showing through.

There are so many funny scenes jammed into "The Wolf of Wall Street" that it's difficult not to just list them all here. But that may be the film's ultimate failing - as funny as it is, that's kind of all it is. We're interested in these characters and their escapades because they're hilarious, but the film doesn't seem interested in indicting them for the awful things they do, either. Perhaps it's smarter that Scorsese and Winter don't really take a moral stance on it, or perhaps the stance is, "Hey, look at these buffoons." Perhaps we're meant to point and laugh at them... while they screw us out of our money with impunity.

Either way, the fact remains: "The Wolf of Wall Street" is hilarious and entertaining. But it is too long, and at the end, it might feel like it doesn't amount to much. If you only appreciate it for its comedy and performances, then by all means do so. If you're looking for deeper meaning or some kind of point to it all... you might be disappointed.

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