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Review: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Roars

Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese's 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Tapping into a primal force that is mercifully unbound by decorum or good taste, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio tear up New York’s financial district in their latest collaboration.

The Wolf of Wall Street finds both director and actor baying at the moon, streaking naked for all to see their shortcomings and strengths, flexing their muscles and refusing to cower at the prospect of an unconventional narrative and an unrepentantly avaricious protagonist. Inspired by a real-life criminal, Jordan Belfort is a consummate salesperson.

But he is also a particularly odious personality, a vile excuse for a human being who, early in his career as a stockbroker, developed a thickly-calloused disregard for his clients’ financial fortunes; as long he profited, all bets were off. His thirst for wealth was not quenched with basic commission fees, and soon enough he devised schemes to rip off more money from more investors at a dizzying rate, quickly totaling into the tens of millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains.

DiCaprio is, frankly, too old to play a naive, fresh-out-of-college kid whose first day as a licensed stockbroker on Wall Street coincides with the nosedive that the stock market took in October 1987. Yet he gives a good suggestion of youth and inexperience, a prototypical sponge, eager to soak in the dynamic, profanity-laden, greed-obsessed, misogynistic culture that quickly envelops him. Even as a young person, his ability to deliver a compelling sales pitch over the telephone sets him apart, his self-confidence cancelling out his insincerity.

Focusing intently on the almighty dollar, Belfort steps easily into drug addiction, which then enables his obsessive personality to indulge freely in all manner of debauchery and sexual promiscuity, no matter that he is married with children. As his lifestyle becomes more luxurious, his sexual activity remains anonymous; he can only relate to women as naked vessels on which to line up cocaine or upon which to empty his seed. He drifts from one wife to the next as though he were trading in a lightly-used sports car for a brand-new model.

Committing fully to the idea of Belfort as someone who is not hindered by the mores of ordinary mortals allows DiCaprio to bellow and beseech and shout and scream and otherwise “overact” in a manner that would be inappropriate for any type of character that is not so over-sized and exaggerated. Largely presented from Belfort’s point of view, The Wolf of Wall Street begins with his voice-over narration, breaks the fourth wall as he addresses the camera directly, and then employs the device only when needed to shore up the ostensible story.

Even as DiCaprio breaks the rules as a leading man, engendering little sympathy for his character’s transgressions, Scorsese breaks all kinds of narrative rules, often drifting away from anything resembling a plot, while calling less attention to his directorial hand. Indeed, much of the whirling action feels tailor-made for his stylish flourishes, so that his craftmanship makes it impossible to see any seams.

The bottom line is that Jordan Belfort surrounded himself with a gang of idiots, and then he made them all rich by swindling unsuspecting clients. The idiots somehow managed to do this while ingesting copious amounts of drugs and engaging in a continuous sexual orgy, according to the film. Scorsese recreates a universe of debauchery, follows Belfort and his friends as they swim in the filth, and then sits back as the chickens eventually come home to roost.

None of this, however, even begins to suggest the heights of hilarity that are reached. (I cannot recall any Scorsese movie making me laugh out loud as often as this one does.) Nor does it touch on the prodigious amount of nudity that is shown and the numerous acts of sexuality that are portrayed. (I should note that most of those scenes are brief and the views fleeting.)

Yet the ridiculous, mirth-inducing conduct and the extreme sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll all serve a purpose: Jordan Belfort and his cohorts lived in a world that was apart from and existed in isolation from the rest of humanity. They were rich, and, as Belfort brags at one point, he knew how to use the money.

Aiding and abetting Scorsese and DiCaprio is a fine cast that exceeds expectations, most notably Jonah Hill as Belfort’s partner-in-crime, Donnie Azoff, who lives only to ‘get effed up.’ Margot Robbie makes a solid impression as a beautiful woman who gets mixed up with Belfort; Rob Reiner is great fun as Belfort’s anxious father; Matthew McConaughey sets the tone as an early mentor; Kyle Chandler supplies grounded balance as a straight-arrow FBI agent; and on and on: Jake Hoffman, Jon Bernthal, Jean Dujardin, and Joanna Lumley all make key contributions.

Behind the scenes, Terence Winter wrestled Belfort’s book into a screenplay that may only have been a blueprint, but it’s a wonderful blueprint, with a foundation that gives Scorsese license to riff into the eternal. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography and Bob Shaw’s production design are spot-on, while the musical score often plays second fiddle to Scorsese’s usual, excellent mix-tape of pop, rock, and punk songs. (It seemed that more cover versions were used this time around, which may reflect in a small way that Belfort re-used tried and true sales techniques.)

Scorsese’s most important collaborator is Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been editing his films since, oh, almost forever. So the rhythms, including the stops and the starts and the silences in which sound drops out at certain moments that makes the scenes mesmerizing, and then music kicks in to accent or undermine what’s happening, are familiar and yet different each time out.

The Wolf of Wall Street made my sweet spot explode. It’s a smart, explosive, and very, very funny movie, with an acute understanding of the peculiarities of greed and its corrosive effect upon the soul.

Review originally published at Twitch. The film opens wide throughout Dallas/Ft. Worth on Wednesday, December 25.

DiCaprio, McConaughey, Scorsese: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Trailer Roars

The rip-roaring first trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street has exploded online. Based on a true story, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a New York stockbrocker in the 1990s who enjoys smashing success and a hard-partying lifestyle that only Manhattan can offer. Matthew McConaughey and Jonah Hill also star; the movie is due in theaters on November 15. [Apple via MovieClips]

Review: ‘The Great Gatsby’ Delivers a Scintillating Experience

Leonard DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in Baz Luhrmann's 'The Great Gatsby'
Leonard DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’

Baz Luhrmann never met an exclamation point he didn’t love!

The Great Gatsby, his scintillating version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, may be garish and boorish and brutish and extravagant — and it is all of those things and more — yet it is never insincere; it never puts on airs and pretends to be something that it is not.

Based on Romeo + Juliet (1996), Moulin Rouge! (2001), and Australia (2008), it would have been shocking only if The Great Gatsby did not splurge on excessive style. The setting of Fitzgerald’s novel — the Roaring Twenties, specifically the summer of 1922 in Long Island and Manhattan — appears to be a perfect fit for Luhrmann’s artistic sensibilities, which cry out for opportunities to display exquisite beauty and to showcase an exuberant color palette.

Luhrmann’s partner in crime, producer and production designer Catherine Martin, is fully his equal, overseeing and directing the creation of magnificent sets, sparkling costumes, and luxurious wardrobes. Simon Duggan, a first time colloborator as director of photography, certainly complements Luhrmann’s taste for glossy, gorgeous imagery.

Having these points in mind, then, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby fully meets expectations. It’s exactly the kind of movie that I anticipated Luhrmann would make from the source material. It’s never less than an eyeful and a half, but it’s also never more than a designer outfit on a mannequin.

Fidelity to Fitzgerald’s novel is never an issue, though the screenplay by Luhrmann and usual colloborator Craig Pearce adds an unnecessary framing device to further distance the viewer from the emotional experience at hand. The movie hews closely enough to the original narrative turns to be considered faithful. The spirit, however, is quite different.

That’s to be expected, of course, considering that the book was first published in 1925; it was a commentary on a decade that was still evolving as Fitzgerald wrote. I haven’t seen the 1949 version, featuring Alan Ladd as Gatsby, but I recently watched the 1974 version, directed by Jack Clayton, which starred a miscast Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, Bruce Dern as Tom, Sam Waterston as Nick, Lois Chiles as Jordan, Karen Black as Myrtle, Scott Wilson as George, and Howard Da Silva as Meyer. It’s a stodgy, conversative picture, very proper and absolutely beautiful in its own way, but the cast members often appear to be acting in different pictures. Redford’s reserve prevents any hint of vulnerability to shine though, and he generates no chemistry with Farrow.

Luhrmann fares better with his cast. Leonardo DiCaprio trips gaily over a wide range of emotions as Gatsby, conveying the anguish of romantic idealism. Carey Mulligan emotes a tearfu, fragile personality as Daisy, Joel Edgerton is very strong as the brutish Tom, and Tobey Maguire is a convincingly passive observer with occasional flashes of anger. Oddly enough, the characters played by Elizabeth Debicki (Jordan), Isla Fisher (Myrtle), Jason Clarke (George), and Amitabh Bachchan (Meyer) are shunted aside more so than in the book or the 1974 film version, so there are fewer moments for those actors to make much more than positive, if fleeting, impressions.

Anachronisms abound on the soundtrack, but it’s not wall-to-wall with modern music; there’s still space for Craig Armstrong’s original compositions and other music that captures the spirit of the times.

What, then, is the problem? Well, it’s inherent in Luhrmann’s approach to the material. The film is both too literal and too phantasmagorical to be taken seriously and/or accepted at face value. On the one hand, the aggressive, “filmic” moments that constantly call attention to themselves are quite effective; it’s easy to become entranced by the fantastic visual touches that distinguish Luhrmann’s vision.

On the other hand, the film also insists on talking and explaining and repeating and making explicit the same points that are being made visually. I imagine this is great for anyone who is blind and/or deaf, but for everyone else, it’s like watching a captivating movie in your native language with closed captioning turned on while listening to someone provide an audio commentary on what you’re watching. It overloads the senses and limits the effectiveness of the entire experience.

Those contradictions also place it squarely within the filmmaker’s apparent artistic ambitions. On those terms, the movie delivers exactly what is expected of it.

Note: The film was post-converted to 3D, which adds little to the experience except a surcharge on the price of a ticket.

The Great Gatsby opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, May 10.

Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'
Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'

It’s a magical mystery tour, a mathematical print by M. C. Escher, a family drama, and a suspense thriller, all wrapped up in one huge, dazzling package. It’s Inception, and it may blow your mind.

Or it may not. Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight is strikingly reminiscent of The Prestige, his follow-up to Batman Begins. Filled with puzzles, populated with good actors, and hiding much of its intellectual heft beneath its distracting surfaces (like the iceberg in Titanic), the movie is challenging but not revolutionary. It feels like an extended, exhilarating roller-coaster ride that slows now and again, allowing time to think about the distance that’s been covered, and to take a quick peek ahead.

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