Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Produced by: Martin Scorsese
Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Screenplay by: Terence Winter
Based on: The Wolf Of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
Cinematography by: Rodrigo Prieto
Editing by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Studio(s): Red Granite Pictures
Appian Way Productions
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures (North America/Japan)
Universal Pictures International (United Kingdom/various European countries)
Release date(s): December 25, 2013 (United States)
January 17, 2013 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 180 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $100 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $305, 103, 652
Review number sixty-two of 2013, as this is, just so happens to be my last review for a movie released in 2013. If you've been following the blog of late, you'll know I've been busy like a mad thing, and while it's at times exhausting, reviewing movies is something I feel will always be engaging and interesting. Earlier on in the year, I had a slight inkling that this could be my last year, to tell you the truth, because I have taken up my writing of prose and poetry again seriously, and because I'm making a real stab at that, there was a thought given as to the future of this blog. I've been at this for seven years now and have written thousands upon thousands over hundreds of reviews, and during that time I've finished secondary school, become a Scout Leader, got a Bachelor of Arts in English and Film, and now I've been working for EventSec for two years, a job for which I'm very grateful. Opportunity knocks right now where my unpublished work is concerned, but this is something I think I'll always have close to me. It's been an integral part in nurturing my own artistic ambitions, but unlike what snotty-pants Godard says, film criticism does not exist just inform one's artistry, but also has a purpose in and of itself. It inspires debate, for no one opinion is consensus, and having things to discuss elevates the art as a form, and, indeed, there is an art to good film criticism. I'd like to think I've done something in that regard over these years, and I will continue to do so for many more; thank so very much for reading, and for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted!
Today's movie up for review is The Wolf Of Wall Street, the latest picture in the now five film collaboration between actor-producer Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. Since 2002's Gangs Of New York, DiCaprio has been Scorsese's go-to leading man, and the two also worked together on The Aviator, The Departed (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and finally netted Scorsese a Best Director win) and Shutter Island, for which I still owe 'Jack's complete lack of surprise' a review (it's beyond a running joke) and I feel is the best thing Scorsese's done since Goodfellas. In case you don't know, Scorsese's one of my all-time favourite filmmakers: he has such a rich body of work, from Mean Streets to Taxi Driver to Raging Bull (going into my Hall Of Fame this year) to The King Of Comedy and so much more, he has consistently been one of the finest directors in the history of the medium. Also, DiCaprio has over the years proved himself to be a fine actor. Despite having the taint of Titanic for many years (a better movie than people give credit. I think it's just used as a whipping boy to be frank!), he has to his name great performances in The Basketball Diaries (done before Titanic), Catch Me If You Can, Blood Diamond, The Departed, Shutter Island, Inception, J. Edgar and Django Unchained: with a back catalogue like that, there's no disputing his status as one of Hollywood's best leading men. Furthermore, the script is by Terence Winter, who for years was a writer and producer on The Sopranos and was the creator and currently a writer and producer on Boardwalk Empire, and with all of these elements, it sounded like a wet dream to me in celluloid (or rather digital!). So, The Wolf Of Wall Street has been in development for many years. Jordan Belfort's memoir was the subject of a bidding war between DiCaprio/Warner Bros. and Brad Pitt/Paramount Pictures, obviously won out by the former, and Scorsese had worked on the script before making Shutter Island, describing the process as "having five months of [his] life," only for Warner not greenlight it. After Scorsese left, Ridley Scott was offered to direct, before Warner dumped the project as a whole. In 2012, Red Granite Pictures picked it up and gave the work a go, with Scorsese coming back on on the understanding there'd be no limits to what he could do, and Paramount would handle North American and Japanese distribution. Starring producer DiCaprio in the lead role as Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who runs a firm engaging in security fraud and corruption on Wall Street in the 1990s, and the proverbial rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Got it? Good!
Starting off with the good, I applaud Martin Scorsese for going in there like a bull in a china shop and depicting excess as it should be. While of course he was given the okay by the producers and financial backers of the film, it is he who creates the tonal pattern for this completely overwhelming movie. I've seen things in the press about it being a glorification of excess and I'm sure there'll be some who adopt Belfort as some 21st century Gordon Gekko-type and sprawl their Facebook pages with various quotes from the movie. However, I feel, in order to depict excess, especially in a manner that suggest it as being ultimately a big fallacy, you've got to be over the top in doing it. How do you depict heroin addiction without any heroin? How do you depict alcoholism without alcohol? How do you depict familial breakdown, depression, illness, racism, misogyny, abuse, all these things, without directly addressing them? If it irks some viewers of a certain disposition, then it's doing a good thing, because even if it hurts, it's important to be truthful towards the subject(s), even if it hurts. Furthermore, with Scorsese you're nearly always guaranteed an engaging and entertaining ride, and I think we do get that here. Also, the screenplay by Terence Winter is terrific. As we know, The Sopranos had some of the best dialogue that has ever been put to paper, and the case is the same here, especially as both are essentially pitched as black comedy. Certain individual scenes could be taken as comedy sketches (the quaalude sequence is hysterical, and the yacht stuck in the storm is jaw-dropping), and most of them fit in well into this jigsaw puzzle, which reveals, as mentioned, the ultimate fallacy of this lifestyle: as The Beatles said in '64, "Can't Buy Me Love." What's also good about this is that the film constructed as satire, and thus, instead of a potentially dull, if informative polemic, what we have is a $100 million picture that's almost as excessive as it's subject matter. Winter is aware of this, with Belfort narrating his own life story in the third person, breaking the fourth wall regularly, and there are various ways Winter breaks down narrative barriers, giving the film a load of reflexivity. The Wolf Of Wall Street is also a technically sound film. Rodrigo Prieto, who made his name working with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, does a great job with shooting on digital film. Scorsese bemoaned the switch from film to digital, and while I don't think traditional film stock is dead by any stretch, I think that digital cinematography, if used well, can be artistic. I agree with Scorsese that film is doubtless preferable, but I think Prieto's fine work here exemplifies the thing's that are right about digital cinematography. Also, while she too expressed disappointment at shooting in digital, the mighty Thelma Schoonmaker's editing talents are not diminished by the transfer to digital. More than anything, Schoonmaker great consistency in this film is how she is able to cut together what is essentially a load of bits and splices and make this a unified, coherent piece of multimodality is a wonder in and of itself. What this does, and I think in conjunction with the digital medium, is that it makes The Wolf Of Wall Street among the most, if not the most modernist (in the artistic use of the term) of Scorsese's work. This is going to result in any number of stupid reactions, but it's not unlike the multimodality of Citizen Kane, although Kane is a different kind of beast and still infinitely more modernist than most movies put together. Also praiseworthy are other aspect that add to the mise-en-scene. The costumes are suitably lavish depending on whatever the situation may be, alternating between tailored workplace suits, casual shorts and shirt combo's at one of the film's monstrous parties, or just right down to fancy loungewear and lingerie. Also, the production design matches the sheer size and scope both of the level of excess in the film and of the ego of those partaking in it. You can tell this obviously where most of the budget went, and it's up there onscreen for all to see. Not just the physical construction of certain sets, such as the office building which houses Belfort's Stratton Oakmont, but also various things used in location shooting, such as the boat named after his wife and their huge mansion. Everything in this movie is dialled up to eleven, and the same can be said for the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in the central role. Not only does he bring the reliable qualities that we all know he has to the screen, he goes completely all out and throws himself completely and utterly into the part. It's amazing see him start off as a relatively mind-mannered, soft-spoken nice guy, and through the use of narcotics transform into a flaming wrecking ball of destruction. His diction and voice, both in the diegesis and outside as the film's narrator looking back in hindsight, are perfect, and indeed his expressions are at times akin to the rubbery-faced antics of Rowan Atkinson. Wild and energetic throughout, this is perhaps DiCaprio's best screen role to date. When I say 'perhaps,' take that part of it out in reference to Jonah Hill, who does give his best screen performance in the role of Donnie Azoff. Paid the low sum of $60,000 because he was desperate to work with Scorsese, he puts his whole heart and soul into his character. We all know Hill's a funny guy, and not only is he absolutely hilarious, he also gives Donnie a three-dimensionality that many others would fail to do. It's a performance of details, with Hill chain-smoking his way through the piece and brilliantly depicting the idea of the little guy off the street ending up in this wacky world. Also, his sense of timing is just splendid, able to be serious when necessary (you take him seriously when Donnie, with real conviction, tells Belfort "I think you might have a drug problem"), and with his career still-young, the sky's the limit for Hill. Also strong in her first major movie role is Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort's trophy wife Naomi. Not just a pretty face, Robbie is a real firecracker in the same way that Cathy Moriarty was in Raging Bull, more than capable of holding her own with the veteran DiCaprio, indeed, winning in many games of one-upsmanship credibly against him. Also, you've got Rob Reiner in the mix there as Belfort's father Max, who hysterical in his portrayal of a man with a real up-down temperament. Speaking with experience, both from myself personally and various family and friends, I know what it's like to be around people like this, and Reiner walks the tightrope between Max as both an intimidating figure and someone to be laughed at rather well. On a smaller note, how good is it to see the fabulous Joanna Lumley in a big film like this? You've also got Jean Dujardin in there being his usual charming self. Finally on the acting front, you've got another great Matthew McConaughey performance in Mark Hanna. Although he's not in the movie that long if you think about it, it's down to McConaughey to get across the craziness of the world Jordan Belfort is going to inhabit (still being mild-mannered Jordy and all), and he does it with Gusto. Fast-talking, jittery and an obsessive man of details, McConaughey's Hanna is a caricatured version of what Belfort/DiCaprio becomes later on, and his influence hangs high over the rest of the film. In conclusion on the good side, The Wolf Of Wall Street is a wild, wacky insane merry-go-round into a world of excess, greed, corruption, sex, drugs and rock-n'-roll, and as was stated in an interview with Kristopher Tapley of HitFix, the fact that it is so entertaining "is the horror of it," the whole crux of the film, which as an experience is akin to being bombarded with the entire inventory of Looney Tunes' Acme Corporation. Although Popeye and his reactions to spinach could serve the cartoon reference and metaphorical purposes too. ;)
Now, as you've gathered, I thought The Wolf Of Wall Street was a great romp, and I frankly don't have much to criticise about it. However, a subjective criticism does exist regarding the movie, and that is concerning the running time. As I mentioned, I thought that most of the pieces fit together into the puzzle, but some, while individually strong, don't fit into the larger scheme of things. When I think of the long movies I saw in 2013, I think of the likes of Prisoners, Man Of Steel, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, and when I think of them and their running time (all over 140mins long), all of them, in various shape or form, could have been trimmed. Then I think of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, a movie roughly the same length of The Wolf Of Wall Street at the three hour mark, and for me personally I wouldn't have cut much if anything at all out of it. I was never less than anything but engaged the entire running time. The Wolf Of Wall Street on the other hand, though the material itself may be good, does not add up and is just not up there with the upper echelon, for I feel a fair chunk could have been trimmed, and even among Scorsese's own catalogue, Goodfellas shows us how it's done: it's a near two-and-a-half hour film, but by God there is so much in there that it feels ready to burst at the seams. This at times, feels like there's a little of Jake La Motta's gut going out over the belt.
Well, aside from the running time, which I do think denies it from being an outright masterpiece in the way a long film like Blue Is The Warmest Colour or The Turin Horse, my favourite film of 2012, may be, in that not a minute of their duration is dispensable, I still think The Wolf Of Wall Street is a great film. It has to be one of the most gutsy releases in contemporary cinema, for Martin Scorsese directs with such a tone of conviction that is unadulterated, wallowing in the excess it depicts, a process necessary to get it's point across. The script by Terence Winter is a fine bit of work, with some tremendous dialogue and memorable sequences woven into the tapestry of the picture. Technically it's astute with Rodrgio Prieto doing a fine job as DP and the mighty Thelma Schoonmaker giving the film a real multimodality, which in conjunction with the digital film makes this among the, if not the most modernist of Scorsese's oeuvre. The mise-en-scene is terrific, and you have some outstanding performances, not least primarily from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, who are in career bests here, a splendid debut for Margot Robbie, a maniacal Rob Reiner, strong bit parts from Joanna Lumley and Jean Dujardin and although he's only in there for a few scenes, Matthew McConaughey does a really creative bit of work to set the tone for the whole piece, which a weird, wild, wacky merry-go-round of excess that is the cinematic equivalent of getting hit with a sledgehammer.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.9/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - "I'm finished" - Daniel Plainview