Day 264: The Wolf of Wall Street

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"Sell me this pen."
Martin Scorsese has taken a lot of detours in his career since winning his first Academy Award for directing 2006's The Departed. He's dabbled in horror (Shutter Island), television (Boardwalk Empire), fantasy (Hugo), and returned to documentaries as well (George Harrison: Living in the Material World), but all indications from the subject matter and trailers of his latest film The Wolf of Wall Street indicated that he was returning to the crime sagas that had made him famous in the first place. So was this a "return to form" so to speak, or would he struggle to recapture the magic that made films like Goodfellas, Raging Bull & Taxi Driver famous? Read on to find out...
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Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) enters the world of stock trading as a wide-eyed optimistic young man in the early 1980s, and is given a crash course in how to survive the industry by his first boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). After acquiring his license to trade, his first day at his new job is October 19, 1987, otherwise known as Black Monday. With the industry in turmoil, and the agency he worked for shuttered, he struggles to find a new avenue to go down. He answers an ad in the paper looking for stockbrokers to sell penny stocks to poor saps dumb enough to buy them, but with a 50% commission as opposed to the 1% commission he was making for blue chip stocks, Jordan sees a while new world open up for him.
He begins to acquire a faithful following as his talents as a broker begin to make him lots of money, and he takes as his partner a young furniture salesman named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Together they expand their business model and begin making money hand over fist off of lower and middle class people. When they combine their tactics for selling these junk stocks with the higher end blue chip stocks, they hit on a way to start selling to the top 1% of money makers in the country. They become overnight sensations, but not without attracting the attention of the SEC and the FBI. 
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The electric first hour of this film pulsates with the energy and vitality that Scorsese has brought to all of his best films, and it seems as if he has slipped right back into this world without missing a step. However, the film grinds to a halt a little past the one hour mark, and never recovers. Scenes begin to drag on for an eternity, and while there are some inspired set pieces such as an hysterically funny scene where DiCaprio & Hill overdose on quaaludes, the film becomes an interminable slog towards an inevitable conclusion. Scorsese's gift for keeping things tight and focused is noticeably absent from the latter two-thirds of this three hour saga, and it truly hurts the overall film as you begin to wonder when, and before long if, it will ever recover.
Unfortunately it doesn't, and what began as a riveting and zippy tale of excess and greed turns into a never-ending saga of a man who simply doesn't know when to say when. The major problem with the film is that Belfort is such a despicable human being that it becomes hard to care about what happens to him, and any foreknowledge of his fate only makes the film's conclusion that much less edifying. Scorsese has made a career out of turning despicable people into anti-heroes from Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta to Henry Hill, but there's something especially sleazy about Belfort that makes spending this much time in his company all the more unpleasant. 
Rumors circulated that Scorsese was having trouble editing the film down to a consumptive level, and it truly shows as the film plods along with no sense of momentum. The film is full of colorful supporting characters but none of them help to redeem this journey through a period of enormous irresponsibility and excess. There's ultimately a lesson here in the rich never really getting their comeuppance no matter what just because of their status in American society, but that message is buried beneath layers of awful people behaving terribly towards one another which only aids in diminishing that point. I'm not saying that Scorsese is celebrating this behavior, and he doesn't take strides towards making Belfort a likable or relatable character (one scene that attempts to do so is laughably ridiculous, but very much on purpose), but he does seem to linger too long on the merriment of it all. 
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DiCaprio turns in an admirably powerful performance in the film, giving the film a strong core from which to build around, but he seems to be trying a little too hard at points. His early scenes and his later scenes are the strongest, but he falters the most in the bloated middle portion of the film (save one fantastically funny sequence that I've already mentioned). McConaughey steals the whole film with his character who disappears completely after two memorable scenes, and his might be the best one man show since Alec Baldwin taught the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross to always be closing. Margot Robbie is also a bright spot in the cast as Jordan's second wife Naomi, and her character really comes to life in her final two scenes after early bits of the same "trying too hard" syndrome that plagues some of DiCaprio's performance. 
Jonah Hill is firmly out of his element in this film, and while he has stood his ground well in dramatic roles in films like Moneyball, he overcompensates for his lack of dramatic training by either doing too much or not enough, and always at the wrong times. His goofy fake teeth don't help things much, but the moments when he tried to fall back on his Apatovian improv riffing were cringe inducing. The rest of the supporting cast does admirable work, and fleshes out the world well, they're just all pretty awful people and it's hard to cling to any of them. 
The script by Terence Winter, based on Belfort's book, is a mixed bag of strongly written scenes, and ones that go on for the length of a bible. It's somewhat unfair to compare his work to the work of Scorsese's past collaborators like Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas), William Monahan (The Departed) and John Logan (Hugo), but this film lacks the drive and brevity that those scripts had in spades. Scorsese's work here produces similarly mixed results, balancing masterfully done sequences with ones that seem to have absolutely no one at the helm. You could show someone any of a handful of scenes from the film's second or third hour and easily convince them that they're the work of a Scorsese imitator.   
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After an amazingly strong and often hilariously funny first hour, The Wolf of Wall Street turns into a film about excess that falls victim to the very thing it sets out to caution against. A handful of very good to great performances aren't enough to redeem the overall film, and I'm sorry to say that this is Scorsese's least satisfying film in a long time. While it will likely grow on me with successive viewings as so many of his films have, there's nothing here that's instantly memorable or iconic in the way that his best films are, and I'm left feeling terribly hollow after this first viewing. At best, it's his next Casino or Gangs of New York, and honestly, that's really not saying very much. 
GO Rating: 2.5/5


[Photos via ComingSoon]