An electric performance by Leonardo DiCaprio saves The Wolf of Wall Street from becoming a coked-up hot mess.
As the Oscar season and 2013 concludes, we're treated a rather raucous submission: Martin Scorsese's epic The Wolf of Wall Street, a big, overbearing, coked-up, sexed-up delight of bacchanalia proportions that it almost OD's on itself. This is Gordon Gecko's Wall Street tuned up about 50 notches; the question is, does that make for an Oscar-winning experience? The answer is decidedly yes and no.
Based on the Jordan Belfort autobiography, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the man behind the curtain, an investor and swindler with few morals who rides a wave of drugs, sex, and booze to financial ruin. At film's beginning, he's a wide-eyed stock lapdog looking for a break when a chance lunch meeting with an insane senior broker (Matthew McConaughey) opens Jordan's eyes to real world. Unfortunately Black Monday hits and the firm has to let Jordan go, forcing him to sell penny stocks out of a strip mall call center. It's here that the wiz kid comes out, selling the proverbial ice to Eskimos and eventually landing his own brokerage house.
Soon, his slick talking scripts are nabbing his nefarious thug employees wads of cash, including the odd Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who immediately quits his old job after Jordan shows him a paycheck for $70,000. Belfort's empire begins to grow, fueling a life of drugs, booze, and sex that catches on with his team - the office is merely a place to fornicate (even though there's a 'No Sex During Office Hours' sign in the bathrooms in place of 'Employees Must Wash Their Hands'), throw midgets against a giant bullseye, and masturbate in front Jordan's new bombshell wife (Margot Robbie). But the FBI is onto Belfort's scheme, and soon the dour G-Man Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) sets his sights to bring the hotshot and his merry band to justice. As the drugs and booze alter his personality and priorities, Belfort will come face to face with his humanity and lose, dragging his company and family down with him.
Wolf is unabashedly unafraid to show its dirtier, scummy side. From female full frontal to bondage and drug use, this gets as close to an NC-17 rating as we've seen in years. In fact, Scorsese had to make several cuts to bring it down, with the result still a very hard R. But that's the problem with Wolf - for all of its over-the-top skits, its brazen nudity, and its total lack of morals, the film is missing any semblance of a soul, content to display a lifestyle of decadence without infusing any of its characters with a moral center. We at once hate Belfort for what he's become, how he has ruined the lives of so many, but we fail to feel a single shred of pity for him. Unlike the psychopath Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or the mobster Henry Hill in Goodfellas - both whom we come to almost admire in some sick way - the cynical theme of Wolf throws everyone under the moral bus, leaving the audience with as many empty characters as those in the old ABC afternoon specials. They look good and say nice things, but there is absolutely no reason to like or care about their well-being. Scorsese and Writer Terrance Winter wallow in the gutter from the opening frame, filling it with expletives, cock-blocking, and candles in creative places, but that doesn't necessarily make for good theater.
But, there's a difference between shallow characters and shallow performances, and when viewed in that light Wolf shines bright. As much as Stratton Oakmont depends on Belfort as its noise behind the veritable microphone, Wolf succeeds mainly because of DiCaprio, who keeps this ship afloat with such a powerful presence that he nearly blots out the sun. Whether critics will see things that way come Oscar time is hard to predict, but this is a disaster at sea without him. We're also impressed with newcomer Robbie as Belfort's wife, as well as Hill with his bleached teeth and preppie sweater portrayal. This isn't his first stab as a dramatic actor, and here we like the comedian taking on such a meaty role. When Jordan and Donnie ingest too many decades-old Quaaludes, they destroy a sportscar and later fight for control of the telephone in one of the funniest scenes of the film.
A common theme behind several 2013 movies has centered around 'what are you prepared to do for your family' and Wolf shows it's unafraid of the answer. In this case, it's Belfort's original employees who benefit, receiving his love and loyalty like a hooker who dispenses her tricks with cool efficiency. Anyone else - such as his family and the investors who trusted his slick charm - suffer a good fleecing that's almost painful to watch. This is the pure insanity of Scorsese's fifth collaboration with DiCaprio, ill content to rest on any laurels or good will which the duo have engendered over the years to push the satire genre right to its edge. But it's the length which might ultimately kill any Oscar hopes - at exactly 3 hours, we think the plot could have been told more efficiently, But leave the boobs in.
If this was Scorsese's intention - to create morally ambiguous characters in a cynical world, acting out with an intensity that even a reality TV show couldn't imagine - then count it as a stunning success. In the end, The Wolf of Wall Street will divide audiences much the same as it has for other Scorsese films - you either adore The Aviator, The Departed, Casino, or any of his other brilliant masterpieces, or you despise him for brazenly displaying the seedier layer of humanity with this one. No one should complain about the excellent performances, but with a runtime of 3 hours it's in need of a serious edit. With so few quality entries this year, The Wolf of Wall Street does dominate over the flock of passive sheep, but it's 'big noise/small room' approach may not be a good thing. It's rated a very extreme R for everything imaginable and has a runtime of 180 minutes.
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