At an early press screening for Martin Scorsese’s rollicking 80s comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street,” awards hopeful Jonah Hill introduced the movie, saying: “Prepare yourselves. It’s a crazy insane exciting movie to watch.”
Right he was. “The Wolf of Wall Street” instantly jumps into high gear, where it stays full-throttle for most of its three hours, as a terrific Matthew McConaughey grooms (and corrupts) his eager protege Jordan Belfort on how to achieve the American Dream– by cheating his customers. There are moments–few, but crucial–when Leonardo DiCaprio, on whom this movie entirely depends, slows down and reveals what he is really feeling. But most of the time he is too drug-addled to feel much at all. Scorsese is channeling memories of that halcyon 70s/80s drug era–“New York, New York” is remembered as one of the great Coke movies– and he and “Boardwalk Empire” writer Terence Winter, adapting Jordan Belfort’s memoir, deploy DiCaprio as a “Goodfellas”-style narrator. The two films share DNA, as many of Scorsese’s movies do.
It’s a testament to the winning DiCaprio that we are willing to hang with him and his ferocious excesses for so long. Freewheeling Wall Street kingpin Belfort is by far his richest– and most exhilaratingly comedic– performance to date. But by the third hour repetition and weariness do set in, so that when Belfort takes the mic in the trading room to exhort his troops one last time it’s one time too many. He doesn’t want to leave, he tells them. Well, maybe he should.
This is the most entertaining movie Scorsese has made in years, and is sure to please a wide swath of audiences everywhere. It makes sense that Paramount would finally want to book the $100-million picture over the holidays, pushing its presumably commercial Jack Ryan reboot into the new year, as Scorsese and editor/collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker labored over cutting an hour off the final running time.
While I wasn’t offended by the movie’s treatment of women, presumably de rigueur for the period, I wasn’t impressed either, especially when contrasted with David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” The vagaries of the release calendar have put these two films up against each other, which makes it tempting to compare them. What can I say? Writer-director Russell did a far more impressive job with a $40-million budget and more limited palette, delivering his own social critique of an unfortunate period in American history with a wider range of rich characters including a full-blooded romantic triangle with two well-written, layered women, by relying on his actors to enrich his screenwriting on the fly. Was he hard on his actors? No question, you can read that between the lines in interviews with Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, especially. But the end result feels more organic and authentic than the old-school approach of directing actors who have memorized their lines from a screenplay.
While Scorsese laces the movie with fun cameos from Spike Jonze, Fran Lebowitz, Rob Reiner and others, they do call attention to themselves. In fact, the best sequence in the more-than-twice-as-expensive “The Wolf of Wall Street” (which is packed with yachts and helicopters and VFX and pricey locations from Manhattan to Las Vegas) was developed and choreographed by DiCaprio and Jonah Hill–the soon-to-be-famous ‘lude scene, in which the two men hilariously flop around like bleating beached seals after taking far too many quaaludes. That’s what everyone will be talking about.
While so far awards attention has focused more on “Hustle,” like late-arriving “Django Unchained” last year there is still time for “Wolf” to catch up. But the Academy tends not to favor comedies, which will make it tougher for the deserving DiCaprio to break into the super-competitive Best Actor race; the film is most likely to be recognized for its considerable technical accomplishments. For now making their money back is Paramount’s primary concern.
The film hits theaters December 25. A review roundup below.
A brazen three-hour cinematic bender of sex and drugs set to
the tune of financial chaos, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is undoubtedly the
craziest movie of Martin Scorsese’s career. With an untamed energy that dwarfs
any of his crime dramas, Scorsese’s raucous, exhausting display is driven by an
eager commitment to vulgarity. As stock market scammer Jordan Belfort, Leonardo
DiCaprio’s unfettered ferocity meshes with Scorsese’s aim of exploring Belfort’s
crafty early nineties rise. Turning his memoir into a vivid portrait of the
hedonistic excesses associated with unregulated wealth, “The Wolf of Wall
Street” amps up an absurd volume of entertainment value. But it also suffers
from an overabundance of the qualities that elevate it to such ridiculous
heights. Scorsese depicts his maniacal subjects far better than he interrogates
Even Gordon Gekko looks like a veritable lap dog compared to
Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” whose coked-up,
pill-popping, high-rolling shenanigans made him a multi-millionaire at age 26,
a convicted felon a decade later, and a bestselling author and motivational
speaker a decade after that. Now, Belfort’s riches-to-slightly-less-riches tale
has been brought to the screen by no less a connoisseur of charismatic
sociopaths than Martin Scorsese, and the result is a big, unruly bacchanal of a
movie that huffs and puffs and nearly blows its own house down, but holds
together by sheer virtue of its furious filmmaking energy and a Leonardo DiCaprio
star turn so electric it could wake the dead.
This is undoubtedly DiCaprio’s largest and best screen
performance, one in which he lets loose as he never has before, is not
protective of vanity or a sense of cool and, one feels, gets completely to the
bottom of his character. Caution was not an option with this characterization;
the word does not exist for the actor or the character.
Unlike most of his screen work to date, Hill is not (just)
comic relief here but a credible, if weird, figure, an eager young man
perennially keen to prove to his boss that he’s willing not only to embrace but
exceed his high standards of waywardness. The actor’s timing is terrific and he
keeps offering surprises and nuances to the end.
The Wolf of Wall Street, for all its abundant appeal, is no
Greek tragedy. It lacks the wildness of Taxi Driver, the jeopardy of GoodFellas
and the anguish of Raging Bull. Far better to view this as a stylistic homage,
a remastered greatest hits compilation, an amiable bit of self-infringement. So
many directors have built a career from ripping off Scorsese; it’s hard to
begrudge Scorsese wanting a piece of the pie. He gives us a film that is
polished and punchy, chock-full of beans and throwing out sparks. He’s enjoying
himself and the fun is infectious.
Scorsese’s keyed-up, irreverent tone frequently fails to
distinguish itself from the grunting arias sung by the oily paragons of
commerce his film evidently intended to deflate. In fact, Scorsese’s slobbering
enthusiasm over screenwriter Terence Winter’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Heartless
only confirms the validity of the hard sell.
For all its close thematic ties to Scorsese’s previous
studies of young men with God complexes, The Wolf of Wall Street might be
closer in spirit to the director’s concert films, with their blurring of the
divide between the movie’s audience and the on-screen crowd. Like Dylan,
Jagger, or the Band, DiCaprio is working himself into a sweat to seduce us—on
one level, because that’s just what Belfort did to his cronies and victims; on
another, because he wants our respect and awe, if not our love or affection.