Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street: A Review


This is not scientific in any way, but out of my own curiosity I decided to count the number of expletives (in particular F-Words) that The Wolf of Wall Street used in its three hour running time.  Some reports have it as high as 544.  Other reports have it at a mere 506.  Now, yours truly decided to tally every F-Bomb he heard, and granted he might have missed a few (given how some characters repeated it so often I had to rush my tally marks), but my total comes to 512, and two of them were mouthed so I won't argue a count of an even 510. 

I can also report that my pen ran out of ink at the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, partially because all those tally marks do add up, partially because the movie is a whopping THREE HOURS LONG.  That's a mere 54 minutes shorter than Gone With the Wind (including the Overture, Intermission and Exit Music), 52 minutes shorter than Lawrence of Arabia (ditto), 32 minutes shorter than Ben-Hur, and 20 minutes shorter than The Godfather Part II.   I throw all that at you because The Wolf of Wall Street, again, is LONG.  That isn't necessarily a bad thing: long movies can be extremely good (examples: Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, The Godfather Part II).  Sometimes though, a little trimming could have worked wonders: at 3 hours, 21 minutes, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King could have maybe cut out one of its many endings without being none the worse for wear.  In the same vein, The Wolf of Wall Street might have cut down on scenes that last longer than they should, maybe show less of Leonardo DiCaprio's nude body (among other naked people) and yes, throw out a few of the 506/512/544 F-Bombs. 

Its running time, while not justified, is however, only one aspect of The Wolf of Wall Street that makes me wonder how so many can think it is so good when it is not.  It's not bad, mind you.  There are many good things in it (the F-Bombs, though, are not among them).  It is just that there is a fine line between 'sprawling' and 'chaotic', and The Wolf of Wall Street goes through said line more often than not. 

Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) narrates his story, sometimes speaking directly to the viewer.  His life's ambition is to be hyper-rich (he is disappointed that his income one year didn't average a million a week).  Under the mentorship of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a cameo), he soon starts his road to being a high-power stock broker.  Unfortunately, the day he starts is October 19, 1987: Black Monday, when the stock market takes a wild plunge leaving everyone stunned.  Out of work, his wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) directs him to a Long Island firm that deals in penny stocks.  Belfort, however, takes his experience and starts making thousands, tens of thousands, even millions, selling worthless stocks in penny-ante companies. 

His wealth gains the admiration of Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill), who also shares his taste for drugs (introducing him to the joys of crack cocaine, a rare substance Jordan hasn't used before) and women (mostly, but that's later).  Jordan starts his own firm, with the ever-so-posh name of Stratton Oakmont, to lure more customers into his schemes.  As his crew, he gathers a collection of marijuana sellers, users, and only one with anything close to higher education (one of his employees, for example, thinks jujitsu is a place in Israel).  Jordan trains them in the art of the steal, and soon they become very rich.  With that, they also become even more self-indulgent with the hookers, the drugs, and the general bacchanal-like world of their own boiler room.

Jordan attracts more fools...I mean, followers, after a blistering profile in Forbes Magazine, and with that, he also attracts Naomi (Margot Robbie), a beautiful woman he calls the Duchess of Bay Ridge.  Now, Jordan has never been faithful to Teresa, but Naomi is simply too beautiful and desirable to let slip through his fingers.  Affair discovered, a quick divorce and second marriage commences.

Things are rolling along very well, but trouble is on the horizon.  FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission, has been keeping his eyes on Jordan ever since the Forbes article, knowing he is a shady character.  Jordan tries to buy his way out of this, but no dice.  Still, he keeps rolling along, determined to make and keep his high-flying life going.  If it means using his wife's Aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) to hide money in Switzerland, so be it.  If it means doing business in Switzerland with banker Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dejardin, clearly enjoying his further ventures into English-language cinema), that works too.  Eventually though, through a mix of inept bungling by Azoff and the Stratton Oakmont minions (particularly the money smuggling to Europe), Saurel's missteps, other outside forces (Benihana somehow helps bring him down too) and Jordan's own hubris the Feds catch up to him.   Though there is a chance for a deal Jordan decides to stay in the game.  That and his turning on the Feds by trying to tip off Azoff about the investigation lands him in a country club prison, but in the end, Jordan Belfort rises again, luring new people into following his Master Plan for Wealth.

I have never held that 'nothing succeeds like excess', so if people truly look at Jordan Belfort and his life of drugs, sex, and cash as something to admire they are far sicker than the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street.  I figure Martin Scorsese wanted to make a film about pure, naked (in more ways than one) greed and avarice, to hold up a mirror to the wild derangement of American capitalism gone mad.  Perhaps all the excess in The Wolf of Wall Street (especially the length) was meant to reflect the excess of Stratton Oakmont and Jordan Belford and his minions in particular.

That is still no reason for having so much in it that it soon becomes far too bloated and chaotic to justify either its running time or its content.

I could not help think that Terence Winter (basing his screenplay on Belford's autobiography) was simply too enamored of the insanity of Belford's world to maybe not try to trim things down.  I could easily see whole characters and subplots removed without affecting the flow of the story.  For example, we get a small story of Jordan's gay butler, Nicholas (Jon Spinogatti), who hosted his own orgy where cash was stolen.  Jordan and his crew is furious about the potential theft, going so far as to dangle the butler over the edge in order to get him to talk (after giving him a beating).  The butler at one point tells them that he and Donnie know the same person, a Rudy from the Lollipop Club (not to be confused with the Lollipop Guild), which Donnie hesitantly denies.

Does it suggest Donnie is gay, bisexual, maybe bicurious?  Well, minus one gay slur thrown at him long later this doesn't come up again.  Same goes for Jordan's two guards, Rocco and Rocco.  We see them when they can see on hidden camera Naomi denying the highly sex-crazed Jordan a visit to her 'special place', but then they disappear without rhyme or reason.  We also get near the end a horrifying scene where the drugged-out Jordan tries to take his daughter out of the mansion but only ends up crashing the car when he puts it in reverse with a terrified little girl in the car.  Violet (Johnnie Mae) does her best to rescue Skylar.

Now, who is Violet?  Who knows!  Technically, Violet is the housekeeper/nanny, but we were never formally introduced.  I remember writing in my notes "Kimmie--where'd she come from?" Kimmie (Stephanie Kurtzuba) is...well, I don't remember, and here is one of the big problems The Wolf of Wall Street has: minus the main characters, other pop in and out so quickly whatever role they played are quickly forgotten. 

Scenes that should have worked don't.  For example, there is the face-off between Denham and Belfort (a side note, at 48 Kyle Chandler looks if not the same age actually younger than the 39 year old DiCaprio).   What should be a battle of wits and subtle hints and nods soon starts getting longer, and longer, with pauses where it looks like they aren't sure if the scene is over or should continue. 

Further, while the cult-like atmosphere of Stratton Oakmont is captured in wild scenes of deranged decadence, it soon becomes a lot to take in: all the drugs, the sex, down to what I think is the first snorting coke/rimming scene in film history. 

This isn't to say that The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't have good things in it.  Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor because he wills himself to be.  He throws himself into the role with naked abandon (literally sometimes), and we see a side of DiCaprio we rarely see: a comic, manic side.  The airplane scene where a hopelessly high Belfort can't control himself is funny, and his entire scene where while outrageously high he tries to drive home when he can barely move is a great moment.  DiCaprio is great in his role.  Chandler (though criminally underused) is similarly great as the honest agent.

The screenplay also does  have funny moments.  At the interrogation of the brokers, one answers with "I have no recommendation of that", obviously meaning 'no recollection'. 

However, one thing that did puzzle me was how Scorsese, a director who uses music to great effect, didn't have the touch here.  Sometimes it works brilliantly (when Naomi first appears, it's to I Might Like You Better if We Slept Together, and at his wedding they are serenaded to the appropriate Goldfinger, though perhaps this was a touch too direct), sometimes it's a bit odd (the Foo Fighters' version of Mrs. Robinson, while great, is an odd fit). 

Again, I didn't dislike The Wolf of Wall Street, but I really didn't care about this lunatic or his insane world.  I thought the story was simply out of control and would have benefitted from more cutting, less drugs, and less sex.  That, however, does happen to be my general view of life as well.

Born 1962


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