Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a Flawed Classic About a Flawed Class System

Left to right: Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio
If there is one indisputable fact, it is that Martin Scorsese transcends time almost every time he directs a film. Now in his 70's, he continues to make challenging tales with cinematic grace and beauty. Movies such as The Aviator and Gangs of New York reflect a director now capable of making an epic out of personal American stories. It is arguable that he lost the fervor and sting that gave us Goodfellas or The King of Comedy, but one needs to not look any further than his latest: The Wolf of Wall Street. Even with controversy surrounding it, its sustenance is so thick with cocaine-stained suits that this capitalism epic is striking and reflects the Scorsese film that we'd never expect: a $100 million budgeted unbiased exploitation flick.

That isn't to say that any frame of this film looks cheap. The exploitation is that of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who utters the line "I can't die sober" at various points in the film. Much like Goodfellas, Bellfort isn't supposed to be a beloved figure in this tale, but more the ring leader to a cautionary tale that features debauchery that strips morals and replaces it with blow and hookers. The issues with everything being unbiased and sort of exploitative is that the moments drag on and the hole of discomfort that the film builds only gets bigger. It is a reflection of the American Dream in ways that films such as The Bling Ring, American Hustle, and Spring Breakers could only dream of. It is so graphic that to not be repulsed is to not understand the film.

At the center is Belfort, which puts DiCaprio yet again as the richest man in town (see: The Great Gatsby and Django Unchained), but in a way that is far more impulsive and sexual. Maybe it is because he seems to be his typecast, but he is such an expert at it that his casual offensive slurs as he throws money into the sky almost seems too natural. This is a performance filled with passion, physicality, and cockiness that almost makes him seem cool in a subliminal way. He'll sell you bad shares just to get a couple million for him and his cronies. He is the threat that will take down anyone who stands in his way. He is the American Dream as a nightmare. 

His pursuits are in thankful hands of Scorsese and a script by Terrence Winter. Through all of the interactions between Belfort and his blase pack, it is the dialogue that keeps the scenes moving. Even if the film feels aimless, the profane attitudes become stylized moments of humor with plenty of sharp wit that seeps into satire. It is a film that doesn't demean its lead just because he is an awful person. It forces the viewers to make up their own decisions, and that may be thanked to the script. Many lines in the film rank alongside the iconic one liners of Taxi Driver or Goodfellas. Belfort's countless speeches of greed become so desensitizing that the words become dizzying. You'll either experience the highs of genius or get lost in the depressing batches of orgies in which  massive amounts of naked women lay on the floor as if it was the pornographic version of Gone with the Wind.

The supporting cast is equally amazing and surprisingly effective. From Matthew McConaughey's brief, zippy introduction to Belfort's corruption to Kyle Chandler's F.B.I. agent and antagonist of the story, these performances get by on confident speeches and actors who treat capitalism like a lunch menu. The most surprisingly effective however is Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Belfort's sideman and psychopath. He married his cousin and beat a gay man for stealing money. He is the evil, deranged result of power gone wrong. He is also the wittiest character in the entire film thanks to some sharp editing by Thelma Schoonmaker that puts his character into a funnel and shoots out insanity at precise moments.

At the core however is DiCaprio and the performance for the ages. Yes, it is tiring to see him play a rich kid. Yes, it is tiring to see the rich insult the poor. However, this is easy to overlook when considering that this is his most physically committed performance to date. He crashes planes and yachts while snorting cocaine off of any naked women in a three mile radius (which is more than you'd think). However, the scene that should define not only his career, but physical comedy for the next decade is a scene involving heavy duty capsule drugs called Lemmons. If Gravity redefined action set pieces, then this moment redefines comedy. Mixing tragic with the most hilarious drug trip in history, it not only features DiCaprio squirming and slurring through a scene, but it juxtaposes Scorsese's technical craft with the film's hint at morality: drugs are great, until they crash a luxury car.

The film is overlong with excess and never lets up. While the morals aren't entirely black and white, the story succeeds on character analysis than motives. Then again, Belfort had very selfish motives, all painted out in ways that seem as pointless as they inevitably were. It just took the genius of Scorsese to find the merit in making a fun party film that puts most others to shame. It is embarrassing how rich it is in content. It may even be overstuffed to the point that we ask if the film needed to be three hours. It is repulsive and strange, but that is how capitalism should be when discussing the American Dream. It isn't glorious or full of wonder all the time. It just happens to be very surface level.

Left to right: Jonah Hill and DiCaprio
The most amazing part of The Wolf of Wall Street is not that Scorsese is 71-years-old and making cinema that puts people a third his age to shame, but the fact that he did it after Hugo. It wasn't a bad film, but it did seem to be a director maturing and making films about what he was passionate about: old time cinema. It is an admirable goal and quite interesting to see him churn out a kid's film of such high caliber. It was even to the point that the innocence that made up Hugo could only be seen as misdirection for his latest. Comparatively, Hugo's most offensive thing was that it depicted French people as clumsy. The Wolf of Wall Street's most offensive thing was that Jordan Belfort existed.

It was such a strange, problematic film upon exiting that I was leery about even giving it a positive review. Topics like this should not be praised. Yet consider the master behind the camera with subtle motives. Belfort is an awful person and made me extremely uncomfortable. However, was that good or bad in relevance to the film's goal. To this moment, I struggle with just how much I like of the film, despite finding the Lemmons scene almost iconic and the supporting cast impressively effective. Maybe it is the length or the numbing excess of the excessive. Or even that DiCaprio has worn out his appeal of playing a rich person.

No matter what, the film's controversy with audiences is well deserved. To sum up why this is important, consider the other films that opened up on Christmas Day (an unfortunate date for this particular film): Saving Mr. Banks, Grudge Match, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Almost no conversation has been had about any of them because in theory, they are safe, forgettable features that don't challenge audiences. They could be acceptable stories, but essentially they lack much appeal. It is important that these films exist, even if you don't like them. Sometimes the controversy doesn't weigh in on quality or legacy, but it means that a director did something striking that makes cinema lively again. The Wolf of Wall Street is likely to be a discussion point for some time, even if nobody will agree on its actual quality.

With that said, I do fear the worst when it comes to the Academy Awards. Controversy has always played against Scorsese, even if he has had an impressive track record in his latter career with getting nominations. Hugo received an impressive amount of nominations and should be indicative that they like the director and he is almost always nominated on sheer legacy alone. I do feel like The Wolf of Wall Street will get a Best Picture nomination, but it will not win. Even in terms of greedy capitalism tales, American Hustle is more of a universal film with a cast currently reaping nominations everywhere. There is argument that American Hustle is the safe version of a Scorsese film, but with director David O. Russell's recent success with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, this probably won't be his downfall. Of course, neither really matter if considering that 12 Years a Slave does seem like a lock for the win.

However, the screenplay and its excessive profanity should be recognized in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. It is probably the essential element of the film, so full of life that almost every other screenplay this year seems to be limp. In that category, it currently is in third on statistics website Gold Derby with odds of 11:2, which is tied with Before Midnight. The mix is actually impressive, though the insight into capitalism through subtle damning is something otherworldly in the screenplay world. 

It may also be a tough call for Best Actor with Leonardo DiCaprio. Gold Derby has him just outside the top five at #6 with odds of 33:1. Unfortunately, the many factors going into this could cost him another nomination. Besides the fact that the Academy has had a notorious notion of disliking the actor, it could also largely be that this is his third film in a row where he has played a rich kid with a silver tongue. It is too monotonous. Instead of judging on the performance alone, the ideas and notions that DiCaprio represent will likely overpower a nomination, especially to the more heavyweight favorites such as Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), and front runner Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). It will be tough and since this film is notorious and sort of repulsive, it is likely to be overlooked as a result.

The general ideology behind this snubbing can be seen by those who recognize Scorsese's catalog. Consider Goodfellas and the casual depiction of the violence and hostile characters. By today's standards, it is a classic, but the rise of the antihero could be too demeaning to those not ready for challenging characters. Taxi Driver was even more questionable, as it was filled with underage prostitutes, drugs, and racism. Scorsese doesn't go safe and it has made him one of the most distinct directors of his era. It is also why The Wolf of Wall Street may be essentially ignored despite being a recognized effort. Taxi Driver was too vulgar and lost to feel good boxing film Rocky. Goodfellas was too casual on its characters and lost to racially sensitive Dances with Wolves. While the Best Picture win doesn't define legacy, the patterns show that the more challenging a film is, the likely it isn't to win. Scorsese almost seems to be a walking example of that.

I do find plenty to admire about The Wolf of Wall Street, even if I overall feel it is a flawed classic. Even if the film has too much monotony, it also has some of the most kinetic and fun moments in the director's career. It will likely be recognized, though more because of who Scorsese is than the actual merit. It doesn't stand much change of winning, though it will likely get its share of nominations. I worry that the controversy will itself impact the voting and the recognition will be small. In fact, it could sacrifice DiCaprio's nomination entirely. All that is certain is that it has started a discussion about morals, which was the film's intent. Scorsese essentially won, even if his film may suffer financially because of it.

Will The Wolf of Wall Street be more than just a film people find repulsive? Is Leonardo DiCaprio capable of a nomination? Does any of the supporting cast stand a chance at a nomination?


  1. Good review. Though it's late in his career, Leo still shows us that he can surprise the hell out of us and gives us an even clearer-idea of why he's considered one of the best working as of right now

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