Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Review: Why DOES This Wolf Roar?

Good vs. Evil.
It's a theme that runs through all the films of the great director Martin Scorsese.
Again and again Scorsese's movies tackle matters involving ambition, pride, greed, vengeance, obsession, unbridled power, passion, crime, justice and mortality.
In the end, it's all about guilt and redemption. And that should be no surprise since Scorsese (who initially thought he might become a priest) has been greatly influenced by his Italian-American/Catholic heritage as well as the neo-realism of the great Italian masters of film including Rossellini, Antonioni and Fellini.
But in Scrosese's new three-hour opus The Wolf of Wall Street street there is no guilt whatsoever and no redemption. Instead what we get is raucous pride, rampant lust, shrill braggadocio and profanity disguised as some sort of modern-day profundity. This is one of the loudest, most relentless, most graphic, most in-your-face movies we've ever seen. From the first scene to the last, it just grabs you by the throat and never lets go.
And it's all played for laughs, sort of.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the true story of Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government.This is a very, very dark comedy. But don't go thinking it's anything like the great classic, black comedies such as Network or Hospital or Fargo or Dr. Strangelove. No, here it's all played with a smirk. In fact, the screenwriter for this film has admitted that the audience is played as suckers alongside those who unwittingly buy the stocks that Belfort and his cohorts are huckstering. Translation: The joke's on you.
Nonetheless, the quick takes, the improvisational style, the over-the-top acting, the lavish production values, the drugs, sex, wall-to-wall flesh and roller-coaster Wall Street ride make the film hard to turn away from. You may be numb to the vile demeanor of Wolf by the time its over but you won't be bored. You may deem it disgusting but you won't find it dull or in the least bit dismissible.
This movie demands your attention, but to what end?
It's not like Belfort and his gang are akin to the mobsters in Goodfellas. They aren't murdering people or breaking anyone's legs or ruthlessly picking off one another. Indeed, one can argue that their victims (such as they were) were willing participants -- fully consensual. And they're not destroying life and limb and property like the Gangs of New York.
Plus, there's nothing new in taking on Wall Street and capitalism. It's already been done via Gordon Gekko ("Greed Is Good") and David Mamet's brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross. And those films managed to do it without nearly as much combined nudity, profanity and drugs.
But like nearly all of Scorsese's films, this movie is an homage to film itself. For example, it's obvious that Scorsese has been inspired by great silent films such as Metropolis and The Crowd and this is evident as we watch Belfort's staff double, triple and quadruple in size via a series of fades. And DiCaprio's pop-inspirational speeches to his troops remind us of similar monologues in Carpra's great Mr. Smith Goes To Washington or the seminal Citizen Kane or even Patton. And as DiCaprio narrates the film and speaks directly to the audience we are reminded of a device often used by Woody Allen.
Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio (who has given Oscar-worthy performances in several films already) is in nearly every scene and he's great fun to watch with his Noo Yawk accent, his tailored threads and his tanned and toned anatomy. And Jonah Hill gives us another scene-stealer -- toothy, bespecaled and outrageous as the best-friend and partner in crime. Broadway's Christime Ebersole as Leah Belfort is appropriately scrappy, vulnerable and besieged. Margot Robbie as Naomi is sensually delicious (but a gold digger nonetheless) as Naomi.  Kyle Chandler as an FBI agent gives a human quality to a character that could have been wooden. And here's one of our favorite new, young actors, Jon Bernthal as Brad. To top it all off there's Matthew McConaughey as Belfort's first mentor. They give it their all, and then some.
But in the end this Wolf is no fox. He's not very canny. He's a shameless breast-beater (literally and figuratively) and a showoff.
And that's simply not enough to string it all together. Because without subtlety or some deeper purpose we're left to wonder what's it's really all about.
Why does this Wolf roar? Dunno . . . . .

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