Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 180 minutes

Though billed as a raucous dark comedy, it would be more accurate to describe The Wolf of Wall Street as a big, loud, three hour parade of horrors. This chronicle of real-life stock broker Jordan Belfort's rise and fall is a slice of excess that is, itself, excessive in execution. Despite stunningly committed work from Leonardo DiCaprio, and some very entertaining debauchery, The Wolf of Wall Street still feels too big for its own good, and this is after a hour of material has already hit the cutting room floor. 

Set amid the coke-fueled heyday of the late 80s and early 90s, Belfort's story begins when, at 22, he walked off of the bus at Wall Street hoping to make a name for himself. And, of course, he did, albeit in all of the wrong ways. As was the case with American Hustle, Wolf isn't terribly concerned about giving the actual plot developments the spotlight. Instead, it's content to allow the plot to momentarily pop up from its gopher hole, while it spends most of its time reveling in the big and insanely loud lives of the characters. 

And even though Scorsese is much better at balancing free-wheeling character scenes and overall plot than David O. Russell, the scales are still tipped way too far in favor of the insanity. Yet to call Wolf a 'party movie' doesn't really sit right. There are drug-fueled blowouts and orgies a plenty, but their purpose is to repulse rather than to seduce. Belfort and his stock broker friends and associates lived large in the emptiest, most debased way imaginable. At the end of La Dolce Vita, Marcello Mastroianni laments the hollowness of his party-driven lifestyle, but he'd go sprinting back to any of those celebrations if he caught a glimpse of Belfort's exploits. 

Despite the film's considerable excesses, it's almost worth all three hours just to witness the gob-smacking amount of effort DiCaprio gives the role in every frame. Some of his previous collaborations with Scorsese have been held back by stiffness or self-consciousness. Here, however, the actor has truly gotten lost in the part. It's mostly sound and fury theatrics, but DiCaprio's every move is perfectly in sync with Scorsese's tone and vision: in your face, exhilarating, repulsive, and ultimately exhausting. Though it won't go down as his most nuanced performance, there's something impressive with how well DiCaprio simply lets go. A long, but worthwhile, scene involving quaaludes and co-worker Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill) includes some of the most impressive physical acting to hit the screen in the past decade. 

So, despite the expansive supporting cast (including Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Kyle Chandler, and Jean Dujardin), the entire three hours truly rests on DiCaprio's shoulders. He certainly carries the whole thing pretty damn effortlessly, which is why it's a shame that Scorsese couldn't have simply given him less to carry. With essentially no change in Belfort's character over the course of the runtime, the nonstop hijinks become exhausting in all of the wrong ways. Scorsese's film is always watchable, but some additional reigning in would have been appreciated. There's simply not enough room for the plot to breathe properly. Had the chaos built to a clearer point, this complaint wouldn't be such a big deal. But the point of the whole thing is something that one can ascertain after the first hour or so. Everything else, however compelling, is merely indulgent to a fault. 

Grade: B-

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