Friday, January 3, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – Review

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street is an insane, hysterical, and utterly compelling look at the American Dream (i.e. what has become a culture of consumerism and materialism run amuck). The film is about Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who worked his way up from peddling penny stocks to owning and running his own brokerage firm – making millions of dollars in the process, allowing him to live a lavish and extravagantly debauched lifestyle. However, not all his business practices are legal, leading to an FBI investigation. Belfort has the money to fight it, but will his ego allow him to skate under the radar?

With The Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese has made a new kind of gangster film, one that somewhat adheres to the genre conventions (the rise from nothing to become powerful, not being able to walk away, and the eventual fall), but plays so much more audacious. In some ways, the film feels a lot like Casino (minus all the violence). It is essentially the story of a man who can see all the angles (in this case the ability to sell anything to anyone) but is ultimately pulled down and betrayed by those closest to him.

It works very well in this way as a character piece, but what makes it so electric and engaging is that Scorsese brings the audience into a world and into the psyche of a man that are held as the ideal in popular culture (extreme wealth and privilege and all that comes with it – who does not dream about being grotesquely rich) only to twist it revealing the drug and sex fueled cultural underbelly of Wall Street, and the men and women who operate seemingly without morals to make as much money as possible while exploiting their most exaggerated desires, degrading humanity with the power of their cash. It is a world that seems so enticing, even in its darkest, most dehumanizing moments. The audience is as much thrilled as they are shocked and/or incensed by what Scorsese shows them. This wildly inappropriate lifestyle (compared to their normal average daily lives) just seems too much fun (even if they hate to admit it), despite being utterly shallow and vain. If only for a moment, the audience is swept up by the striking charisma of Belfort and lose themselves in the never-ending party (much like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby).

What makes the film so much different than Scorsese’s past gangster films however is that The Wolf of Wall Street, while structurally abiding to the formula, plays as a comedy – an insane and amazing comedy. The film is probably the funniest film of 2013. Scorsese is also completely fearless with the material. He allows scenes to be milked for every piece of comedic gold (something that often pays off with great and wonderful rewards – for example the whole sequence following Belford’s consumption of the lemon Quaaludes). Scorsese also goes big with the performances he garners, which fits the tone fantastically. Everything feels a bit over the top, yet everything works perfectly within the context of the tone and the narrative. Scorsese is able to find the perfect balance of comedy and character.

However, the film is not going to work for everyone. It is extremely graphic and crude, which will have a polarizing effect. Belfort is also a mostly unlikable character. He is downright despicable, in fact. And yet, Scorsese’s direction and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance create a man who completely commands the screen, and like with the best antiheroes in film history the audience cannot help but find themselves rooting for him (despite disagreeing with everything he is). Belfort is charismatic and charming – and even though the audience knows he is destined to fall (as that is what the genre dictates must happen), part of them wants to see him win. Although, some will find him unredeemable and will be unaffected by his charm, and for those viewers the film will likely lose a lot of its infectious appeal.

Something that is also very interesting about The Wolf of Wall Street is what it says about America (and really the rest of the world that is now also beginning to buy into the culture of materialism, consumerism, and plain greed). Really, there is nothing to like in these characters. All of them are awful people, but again the audience cannot help but find them and their lifestyle magnetic and alluring (even if it is soulless and empty). Have we as people become so consumed with greed that we want the world at the cost of everyone else? That is what Wall Street is founded on. It is an industry built on getting rich on clients’ money without regard for their wellbeing, yet clients continue to line up in droves. Trading stocks is no different than gambling for the average investor, and many brokers will say anything to push their product because all they care about is the commission (as the clients are already hooked by the thrill of the roll of the dice). The whole financial industry really is just a cesspool of greed, allowing the rich to great richer at the cost of everyone and everything else. Scorsese’s film clearly details the people and culture of this industry. As exaggerated as the film may appear, this is what Wall Street is actually like, what the people are actually like – and yet people continue to give them their money, because they too want their chance to be rich. Each stock holds the promise of something spectacular, just like the turn of each new card or throw of the dice. Humanity very well may already be lost – Scorsese is just reminding us how we got here.

The Wolf of Wall Street is completely entertaining. It is contagiously funny. Using charm and the allure of the American Dream, it pulls the viewer in, exposing them to the crazy world of the Wall Street broker – a world that is at the same time unbelievable, engrossing, and disgusting.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: The Wolf of Wall Street is everything one has come to expect from a Martin Scorsese gangster film, yet unlike anything else the director has done to date. The film grabs the viewer from the start and does not let them go until the credits – whether they are watching with giddy joy or shocked disgust. It is probably premature to say this (being that I have only seen the film once), but it might be my favorite Scorsese film (my other favorites are Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Departed). I just found it to be incredibly funny, captivating, and thoroughly compelling (and maybe it makes me deplorable, but I loved every minute of it).

Scorsese uses music extremely well in his films, and The Wolf of Wall Street is no different. The film features a fantastic soundtrack, with iconic songs that give the viewer a sense of the time period of each sequence and sets the stage tonally. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is fantastic as well (probably the best work of his career to date). His collaboration with Scorsese gives the film a heightened feel, as if the characters and their world exist on a different plain of reality (which in many ways it does). Bob Shaw’s production design is also top notch. While the characters feel very big and maybe even overblown at times, his work seems to ground everything in reality, as everything looks and feels honest to the world.

The performances in the film are brilliant. Jean Dujardin is a lot of fun in a small supporting role, while Kyle Chandler brings a dose of ‘everyman’ to his supporting role as the FBI agent investigating Belfort. Jon Bernthal is great as Brad, a member of Belfrot’s inner circle. He plays the quintessential New Jersey meathead type. Matthew McConaughey is also fantastic as Belfort’s mentor and inductor into a world of loose morals and unbelievable greed (continuing his very strong year, which also includes Mud and Dallas Buyers Club). Newcomer Margot Robbie is wonderful as Belfort’s second wife Naomi. She almost steals every scene she is in – scenes opposite other brilliant actors and great performances – as she just pulls attention towards her (and not just because of her looks). She has a great energy epitomizing a person using whatever they have to socially climb. Jonah Hill also steals scenes as Belfort’s best friend and business partner Donnie (it is his best work to date). Hill plays Donnie to be just a complete asshole, constantly presenting himself as an antagonist in every situation. He is utterly unlikable, and yet so dynamic. Leonardo DiCaprio turns in one of his best performances as well as Belfort. At first he seems like a sincere, nice guy – but once he gets a taste of the lifestyle that money can afford him, the complete abandoning of morals is intoxicatingly freeing. He can do whatever he wants, literally (or so he feels). DiCaprio just has a lot of fun with the character, which in turn translates full on for the audience who also has fun with him.

Summary & score: The Wolf of Wall Street jumps off the screen, forcing the viewer to experience something powerful (be it sheer jovial excitement, utter amazement, scornful shock, or discernment). It is a modern masterwork that showcases the dark side of the American Dream. 9/10 

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