Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
There are two point of view shots toward the end of Martin Scorsese's three-hour opus "The Wolf of Wall Street" that nicely drive home the central points of the film and establish just exactly what Jordan Belfort, the film's protagonist who is played with devilish glee by Leonard DiCaprio, thinks about you and me and the hoi polloi.

The first POV shot is from the perspective of an FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler as he rides the subway home. There's a previous conversation in the film that sets up this shot. And then there's the film's final - and very likely to be debated - final shot from Belfort's perspective. These shots establish the us vs. them tone of the entire picture and that final scene, which references a moment earlier in the movie, is one of the most politically astute sequences of Scorsese's career.

But - in the style of a Scorsese film such as this one, let me backtrack. The film, which is based on Belfort's own exploits and book, follows the Wall Street hot shot's rise and fall from his early days as a wannabe stock broker to his titanic presence at the helm of Stratton Oakmont, a firm he established with a name promising to attract WASP-y clients.

"Wolf" can be coupled with Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece "Goodfellas," but not just in terms of visual style, soundtrack selections and scenes during which characters break the fourth wall - Belfort often stops in the middle of a scene to explain what is going on to the audience and weighs in with his own opinions.

The film also bears resemblance to that previous film in that it follows - in great detail - the story of a criminal - white collar rather than mafioso - whose addictions - drugs, money and sex as opposed to violence, power and, eventually, drugs - eventually cause him to spin out of control, leading him to become a rat against his own people. And, in some ways, the mobsters of "Goodfellas" were even more sympathetic than Belfort, - if you can imagine that, whose character becomes increasingly despicable but, like a train wreck, always fascinating.

At three hours, the film is both harrowing and, admittedly, exhausting. There are scenes that may seem as if they could have been cut out - for instance, Belfort and company talking about how to set up a midget-tossing competition at the office - and yet there is not a sequence in the film that does not feed into the overall theme of what Scorsese is going for here.

The cast is impeccable. It was once written that Scorsese and Robert De Niro objected to someone's referring to Jake LaMotta as a "cockroach" while pitching "Raging Bull." Belfort is, without a doubt, a cockroach. But while the character is easy to dislike, it's difficult to take your eyes off him. And I've never seen DiCaprio so funny as in this picture. The scene in which he and Jonah Hill (also excellent as Belfort's cohort Donnie Azoff) have a particularly bad quaalude trip is one for the time capsule. Matthew McConaughey shines in a brief role as Belfort's mentor during several early scenes in the movie. And the first scene with Max Belfort (Rob Reiner), Belfort's father and Stratton Oakmont's enforcer, is one of the flat-out funniest introductions to any character in recent memory.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is an ambitious, equally funny and horrifying, frenzied and fast paced, brilliantly performed and nearly off-the-rails crime saga. It's proof that, at 71, Scorsese is not slowing down and can still direct the hell out of a movie.

Some misguided souls have expressed displeasure with Scorsese and DiCaprio, arguing that "Wolf" is a celebration of truly heinous individuals. This makes me wonder if they were watching the same film that I saw. There's no question where the director's sympathies lie for those who have actually seen "Wolf." Just check out those aforementioned POV shots and think about the film's ending for a minute. Then get back to me.

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