Sunday, December 29, 2013

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

I thought for a while about doing a Top 5/10/20/whatever list of my favorite movies of the year... but then I figured "screw that, I'm not giving in to that film critic cliche." And besides, I've got a huge list of movies I've seen that I have to catch up on writing reviews for, and at least two of them would certainly make my list of the best movies of the year. The first of them is...

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Holy shit did I have a good time with this movie! The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long, and it felt like it, but never did that stand in my way of my enjoyment. If anything, even though it ended perfectly, I left the theater wishing it would keep going, as I wanted to continue living in its world. Based on the memoirs of former Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort (played here by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance that, in a just world, would be nominated for an Oscar), The Wolf of Wall Street is a deranged, depraved comic masterpiece that's easily among the best films Martin Scorsese has made -- and if you know a thing about Scorsese, you know that that's not a statement to be tossed around lightly. If Texas Chainsaw 3D started 2013 on a sour note for me, moviegoing-wise, The Wolf of Wall Street sure as hell makes up for it by ending the year on one of its highest notes. If I were to make a Top 10 list of the best movies of the year, this would easily be in contention for the top spot.

The Wolf of Wall Street is, essentially, Oliver Stone's Wall Street meets Brian De Palma's Scarface, the true-to-life tale of a penny-stock trader and some of his "associates" (all of them former weed dealers) who clawed their way into the upper echelon of the financial world and had a whale of a time doing so. Much like the two movies I just mentioned, this is one that's likely to pick up a colossal fandom for all of the wrong reasons, with Jordan Belfort's life of debauchery, luxury yachts, midget-tossing, and office orgies used to build him up into a larger-than-life character who utterly owns every second of this film's 179-minute run time. Between this, Django Unchained, and The Great Gatsby, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to have found his niche in the last couple of years playing slimy, yet incredibly watchable and charismatic, villains, and this is probably his best such character yet. Half of the scenes in this movie will likely go down as some of the all-time great movie moments, and DiCaprio's Jordan is a key component of most of them, as he delivers epic speeches to his office, instructs his partners-in-crime on how to sell him a pen, and screams in disbelief at the circumstances that lead to his ultimate fall from grace, conviction, and imprisonment. (It's all based on a true story, so I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that he eventually gets busted.)

Surrounding DiCaprio is an equally capable supporting cast, led by Jonah Hill as Jordan's wannabe partner Donnie, Rob Reiner as the crazy dad Max, former Walking Dead star Jon Bernthal as the drug dealer and childhood friend Brad, Matthew McConaughey as his lawyer Manny... the list goes on. There was not a single bad performance in the bunch, a testament to both the actors and to Scorsese's skill at guiding them. If they often found themselves overshadowed by DiCaprio, then that's simply because DiCaprio was that damn good, not because of lazy acting. If I had to name one standout, though, it would be Margot Robbie as Naomi, Jordan's trophy wife. Robbie was so perfect as the vain Italian-American Princess, one of the few people in the film to hold her own against DiCaprio in every scene she was in, that I never would have guessed that she was actually an Australian soap opera star until I looked her up on IMDb. The camera loves her, and between her sex appeal (something that the film loves to show off, by the way) and her acting talent, she deserves a shot at being Hollywood's next "It Girl".

And on the subject of Margot Robbie's hotness: this is most certainly a hard-R film, absolutely packed with sex, nudity, drugs, depravity, more drugs, and reportedly, a record number of F-bombs. If you go in expecting a staid drama about the world of finance and Wall Street greed, you are going to walk out of the theater shell-shocked. To go back to the comparison I made earlier, Jordan is Bernie Madoff meets Tony Montana, and this film lingers on the debauchery that he and his friends get involved in. This stuff makes up a huge part of the movie, and is both part of what makes it so incredibly fun to watch and also what will likely divide viewers when they step out of the theater. I'm warning you now: while I give this film my highest recommendation, if you choose to see it you had better be prepared for things that you didn't think could be shown in theaters.

That debauched attitude extends beyond the actual scenes of coke-fueled mayhem and into the meat of the film. This is not the sort of dark drama that Scorsese is associated with; rather, it is closer to being an out-and-out comedy, having more in common with Animal House than The Departed. Whether he's filming frat boy-level stunts, Tarantino-esque arguments, or even a great bit of physical comedy near the end with Jordan high on Quaaludes, Scorsese made me wonder why it took him so long to bring his filmmaking talent to the world of comedy, because he has made one of the funniest movies of the year here.

And like all of the greatest comedies, this is a film that never loses sight of the story even when it's making us laugh our asses off. While it wisely avoids the trap of being a "message movie", this film still packs enough subtext about the world of Wall Street finance to clearly mark it as a product of post-recession America. Jordan and his friends may be brazen crooks, but as the film takes great pains to show, there is little separating them from a lot of the more "respectable" financial institutions beyond the open displays of filth. The fact that somebody like Jordan Belfort was able to become a major player on Wall Street in the first place implies that there is something deeply rotten in the core of the Big Apple -- and that it has been rotten for a while, given that Stratton Oakmont's rise and fall took place in the '90s. Wall Street and American Psycho may have made this point before, but it is a point that bears repeating in a world where we still idealize financial institutions that merely move wealth around as opposed to actually creating it as the great "makers" in society.

Score: 5 out of 5

You might want to either wear a hazmat suit to the theater or get an STD checkup after leaving, but that doesn't change the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street is easily one of the funniest, most riotous, and most phenomenal movies of the year. Don't want to sit in a theater for three hours? Bring a pad for your seat, because it's worth it.

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