Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Academy Award Nominations: 5

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Martin Scorsese)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (Terence Winter)
  • Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill)

Jordan Belfort is a young stockbroker with dreams of Wall Street. When his firm fails barely into his first job, he takes a job in a boiler room selling penny stocks which come with a much higher rate of commission. Using the skills he learned on Wall Street, he manages to make more sales than anyone had previously seen selling penny stocks, so much so that he sets up his own business with a few close friends, mainly weed and drug dealers. He gives them a script, a few telephones and a new company name, and soon the money starts rolling in, and with it comes the drugs, the hookers, and the life that Belfort always wanted, but the FBI ar keeping an eye on the 'Wolf of Wall Street'...

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have a magnificent working relationship. Their previous films together (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island) have garnered mass critical acclaim and awards a-plenty, with The Departed even winning Best Picture in 2007 (and becoming one of my favourite films) so their desire to work together again is unquestioned. Jonah Hill was so desperate to work with Scorsese on this, he took home a paycheck just over a tenth of the size of DiCaprio's. The film was greenlit and financed by an independent studio looking to make a name for itself, allowing Scorsese complete creative control over the content. Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire co-creator Terence Winter had written the script. The film contains a laundry list of cameos and famous faces. The pins were set up perfectly, it seemed like this would be a strike on all counts. Then why does this end up feeling like a gutterball?

In my mind, there is a long list of faults with this film, but here's my chief concern: In a film with a cast list as long as my arm, there is only ONE character in the entire piece who an audience can identify and sympathise with. Every single character apart from Jordan's first wife is deplorable, the worst kind of human being imaginable. Call me a traditionalist, but I like to be able to recognise a story with likeable characters within a film that's going to keep me in a cinema for 3 hours. 3 HOURS. This film is excessively fatty, the entire second hour is completely unnecessary and bears no meaning to the story, other than to show the excesses of Belfort's lifestyle. I understand the argument that the film is overly-excessive in order to mirror the excessiveness of Belfort's lifestyle, but they can make that perfectly clear without giving us a second hour made up entirely of naked women, drugs, partying, boats, cars and money. I realise saying this makes me sound like a prude, and I can't believe I'm writing it as a few short years ago, I'm almost certain I would have loved this film. Alas, here I am, an outspoken defender of Only God Forgives and now an outspoken critic of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a great performance, as he always does. He always gives 110% and commits to his characters. The problem is he's given a character who is supposed to be sub-human scum, and as much as he commits to this, his character is drowned in a script which negates any kind of performance and forces the focus be pulled away from performance and onto the visuals. The same happens with Jonah Hill, who's even better in this than he was in Moneyball, and I thought he was great in Moneyball. His character is perfectly slimy, and Hill does well with it, but again he's lost in a seas of drugs and excess. The supporting cast is eclectic and all their performances match the action well; Jean Dujardin is incredibly loathsome, Rob Reiner is meant to be the voice of reason but is relegated to being a pointless character with no real arc or development, Margot Robbie looks great but offers no real depth of emotion which is exactly what her character calls for, and even Kyle Chandler, the FBI agent who's meant to be the good guy is a) made out to be the bad guy because he wants to stop a million dollar fraud/drug ring and b) actually comes off as thoroughly unlikeable because of how he acts around Belfort and gloats when he finally gets his man.

What surprised me most above everything else is how technically bad this film is; it's shocking. I was amazed to see that Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's usual editing collaborator of choice, did indeed work on this film. Her work is usually of the highest standard, and although there are some clever edits which elaborate on the work of the script, some of the editing choices are unpardonable for a film of this calibre. Let's not forget the script as well, wow. Terence Winter has created one of the best dramas on TV in Boardwalk Empire, which does a fantastic job of driving a narrative through drama, tension and character. He clearly attempts to do the same here, but there's no drama to be found at all as everything is character led, as deplorable as they all are. The direction is fine, but there was just no way he was going to be able to reign in the utter chaos that occurs on screen and his usual finesse is lost.

Above all else, I just didn't like this film. At all. It's a film of excess; the length, the script, the characters, the plot. There isn't one redeeming feature in this entire... Feature. All characters except one are deplorable and caricatures of real human beings. The film is far too long and does nothing but promote the virtues of crime, before realising it at the end and giving Belfort a light slap on the wrists, which is probably the most deplorable thing in the film considering you see the actions he takes for the first two hours. Actually, you know what the worst thing is? This is probably scarily accurate. It's sex, drugs and brokering stocks and it's thoroughly, completely disgusting. But what do I know? I'm just an online hack writing a quasi-hatchet job. Everyone else likes it, and a few years ago I probably would have done too. Do what you want.

Rating: *1/2

The Wolf of Wall Street was released on 17th January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.