Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

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I have never before used a "Gif" (for the uninitiated, that's the dancing image above these words) but some things in life are beyond contestation, and the visual of Leo DiCaprio robot-dancing is simply one of the most amazing things created on Earth this year.

That scene, in which a coked-out Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) cuts loose at his wedding is one of many unforgettable moments in Martin Scorcese's latest picture, the Wolf Of Wall Street. Playing Belfort, the real-life man who made an ungodly fortune in the early 90s through the sale of penny stocks and less-than-legal market manipulations, DiCaprio shows a humorous side that I, personally, didn't even know existed, literally crawling his way through gut-busting physical comedy while his character dangles precariously off the edge of a bottle of quaaludes. His Belfort is a king perched upon a throne of money, drugs and women and watching that throne tremble and ultimately collapse is a fascinating display of ill deeds and debauchery.

(*note: It's interesting that this film comes in the same year as DiCaprio's The Great Gatsby, as Jordan Belfort is something of a bizzaro-world mirror of F. Scott Fitzgerald's creation)

Unfortunately, in chronicling every infidelity and every bloodshot morning, Scorcese has created a three-hour-long film that needlessly stretches the story's patience. At several points it feels as though the plot is arriving somewhere, only to get bogged down in some new depravity before setting off anew toward some unknown destination. When it finally arrives, it feels like something akin to relief.
Its saving grace is the stellar performances and the otherwise expert direction by Scorcese, who weaves his lens throughout the revelry as though trapped in the point of few of a drunk and stumbling party guest. Every shot is vibrant, bursting with more activity than your brain can process, and even when it seems like things are going nowhere you don't want to look away.

Front and center is DiCaprio, who we meet midway through Belfort's rise before jumping back to his early days on Wall Street as a fresh family man from The Bronx. He gets a job as a low-level punching bag at a trading firm, where he quickly bonds with Matthew McConaughey, a chest-thumping broker who plants the seeds of corruption in our protagonist's head.

With a renewed zeal, Belfort earns his broker's license only to find himself a victim of 1987's "Black Monday." He's down on his luck, and so he finds himself in Long Island at a dingy start-up that sells crap stock to suckers. But the commission is huge, and Belfort soon realizes he's found a golden ticket and goes about building his empire, first with the help of Jonah Hill's Donnie Azoff and later with a collection of old buddies from the borough.

From there, it's a long stream of escalating madness, punctuated by key cameos that serve as plot development – Jon Favreau as Belfort's legal counsel, Kyle Chandler as a straight-arrow FBI agent sniffing around, Jean Dujardin as a smarmy Swiss banker – on Belfort's road to ruin. He upgrades his offices, then his wife, then his house, then his yacht, all the while slipping in and out of consciousness from a cocktail of illegal substances and breaking the fourth wall to narrate his own exorbitant lifestyle.

The supporting cast, led by Jonah Hill in his best role since Moneyball, fashion wholly-formed embodiments of the corruption of wealth that are simultaneously hideous and loveable. It's an electric story, filled with a relentless onslaught of laughs that could go toe-to-toe with the shenanigans of the Hangover trilogy while still maintaining the elevated stature of a Scorsese Film.

I mean really, this is Martin Scorcese, director of The Departed and Goodfellas, one one of the most respected living filmmakers who occupies a select tier of auteurs with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson. And what he has done is create a 180-minute opus about billionaire frat boys. It is, if you will pardon my cavalier vernacular, bonkers.

Had the movie been about one hour shorter, tightly packaged and streamlined, it would likely have been one of the year's best. Instead, we have a series of magnificent moments that never quite come together into something coherent. As a movie, it is a spectacle to witness but sadly wears out its welcome.

Grade: B-

*The Wolf of Wall Street opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

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