Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

With the average Agitation of the Mind review clocking in at 800 – 1,000 words, it would be easy enough to expend that much verbiage discussing what’s wrong with ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. Let’s be honest: it’s a far from perfect film. The three-hour running time is in no way justified, Jonah Hill’s performance is borderline terrible, and the editing veers from merely functional to appalling amateurish. Scorsese’s editor is, of course, Thelma Schoonmaker, a woman whose contribution to the great man’s canon is immeasurable. To watch some scenes in ‘Wolf’ and pondered that they were put together by the same person who gave ‘Goodfellas’ is rat-a-tat-tat narrative energy is a very depressing thing indeed.

While we’re talking about the editing, there’s probably a trade paper article to be written on how badly the park bench scene between Leonardo di Caprio and Joanna Lumley is put together, and how it does great disservice to the bizarre pleasure of seeing those two actors in the same scene. Not, however, that it’s a particularly good scene. Like many scenes in the film, it simply goes on too long. And don’t even get me started on the scene on the yacht with the FBI guys …

But to write that review of ‘Wolf’ would be to (a) deviate from the mission statement of this blog, and (b) miss the point. Because ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is exactly the kind of film you didn’t think Scorsese made anymore: a full-throttle, frequently exhilarating rollercoaster through the lives of thoroughly amoral characters that doesn’t care if you like them, loathe them, want to be like them or are so thoroughly outraged you exit the cinema and write a strongly worded letter to the Sunday papers.

There’s a dynamic that Scorsese has keyed into which distinguishes the high points of his career, and it’s worth bearing in mind that he almost went into the seminary as a young man. Martin Scorsese is a profoundly moral filmmaker who inherently and empathetically understands the lure of amorality. It’s no coincidence that ‘Wolf’ plays out like ‘Goodfellas: The Stockbroker Years’. The same rise and fall narrative applies to both: protagonist at formative age is dazzled by a certain lifestyle; protagonist hungrily embraces said lifestyle; protagonist spirals out of control, destroying the lives of those around him; protagonist falls afoul of criminal investigation; protagonist rats out his so-called partners in crime to save own skin.

Essentially, the only difference between ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is that stakes are lower and the running time is longer. Oh, and stokebrokers use phones where gangsters use guns. Otherwise, it’s the same retinue of drugs, booze, hookers and a commitment to foul language that would make a Russian sailor blush. That Scorsese plunders his own playbook so determinedly is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in that ‘Wolf’ is Scorsese’s most energised and propulsive outing since ‘The Aviator’, and a weakness in that we’re seeing absolutely nothing new.

But still, it’s a blast. For every scene that drags (an attempted bribe of an FBI officer is so laboriously established that it squanders all of its dramatic possibility after five minutes and then stumbles on interminably for as long again), there’s a sequence that’s joyous to watch and utterly hilarious in its irreverence and inappropriateness. Witness Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) driving out to his country club to use a payphone after he finds his home and office have been wiretapped. A batch of out-of-date ludes he’d ingested earlier and written off as duds kick in plus VAT and, as a voiceover that’s beautifully at odds with what we’re seeing on screen muses, he goes from “that tingly feeling to cerebral palsy in one step”. What follows is several minutes of absurd physical comedy (ever wondered what di Caprio doing a Jim Carrey impersonation would look like? wonder no more), a hyperkinetic argument between two people who have lost the power of coherent speech, an example of the Heimlich manoeuvre/CPR that’s unlikely to gain St John’s Ambulance endorsement, and a DUI version of ‘Rashomon’. Like an 18-rated Morecambe & Wise sketch, the longer it goes on the funnier it gets.

‘Wolf’ works best when Scorsese serves up the material as black comedy. His characters are such an affront to, well, everything that an entirely serious take on the story would be so steeped in moral outrage as to be unwatchable. Ergo, a marital argument between Belfort and second wife Naomi (a stunning, in both senses of the word, Margot Robbie) during which Naomi repeatedly storms out of their bedroom, not for dramatic emphasis but to refill a glass of water in the en suite bathroom for purposes of chucking in Belfort’s face. Think of any of the bust-ups between Henry and Karen in ‘Goodfellas’ filtered through the Three Stooges.

Equally good value for money are Rob Reiner as Belfort’s short-fuse father, and Matthew McConaughey (in a truly disturbing fright-wig) as Belfort’s erstwhile mentor. The casting of Jonah Hill, as I may have insinuated earlier, is less successful. It’s as if audience familiarity with his douchey persona in puerile comedies is being relied upon to create a character rather than, y’know, acting and characterisation.

But then ‘Wolf’ isn’t interested in subtleties. In fact, with its lovingly detailed minutiae of naked hookers and dwarf-tossing, it’s about as unsubtle a film as you’re likely to encounter. Belfort rhapsodizes about month-end debauchery at his offices when the profits are announced and Scorsese brings it to life in fetishistic details. I’ll say this for the guy, though: he stages a sexier and more exuberant orgy than Tinto Brass. The exuberance of ‘Wolf’, the sheer delight in its most non-PC moments, is its greatest strength. At the end of ‘Goodfellas’, Henry Hill complains that his has to live like a regular guy, a shmuck, and paradoxically such a minor quibble compared to jail or a retributive hit almost seems the greater punishment. At the end of ‘Wolf’, Belfort has learned nothing. As a condemnation of a certain mindset that’s all too frequently conflated with the American dream, it almost justifies three hours in his company. Almost.


Elwood Jones said...

I totally agree with your comparison to "Goodfellas", especially when Scorsese has always had a fascination with character's characters rise and fall from power with this film for myself in that respect being more comparable to "Casino" as with Jordon we have a character who finally gets it all only to screw it all up, thanks to bad decisions and friendships with the wrong people.

True it might not be his best work, but it is nice to see a master director like Scorsese still being able to produce work of the same power as his earlier films. Somthing certainly few directors on his level are able to do.

Great review

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Elwood. And good call on the 'Casino' comparison. The more I've thought about it, there are some really strong parallels with that film.