The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount Pictures, R)

wolf 75While a lot of Scorsese’s signature directorial flourishes are on display, this is easily his edgiest film in years.

 

  

 

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In the days leading up to my seeing the new Martin Scorsese picture The Wolf of Wall Street, I kept inadvertently calling it Gangs of New York. This wasn’t intentional nor meant as a joke on my part—it was one of those situations where I of course knew the correct title of the movie, but somehow kept saying the wrong title whenever I wanted to talk about it. But as it turns out, Gangs of New York would have been a title just as appropriate for the film as The Wolf of Wall Street is, if only Scorsese hadn’t already used it.

What I mean by this is The Wolf of Wall Street is structured like a classical gangster film. Not only can it be easily argued that Wall Street as a whole is effectively a gang (and a much more damaging one to society than any of the gangs most of the country seems more worried about), but regardless where you fall on that political issue, the film The Wolf of Wall Street follows all of the tropes we’ve come to expect in a gangster film: the excess, the comeuppance, the lead who’s a self-made man who brought himself up from nothing, even both types of the wife stock character (the genuinely good woman who doesn’t know what her husband’s up to, and also the gold-digging harpy wife).

The lead is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a real-life figure upon whose memoirs the film is based. Jordan begins the film as a starry-eyed young employee at a big brokerage, who quickly learns the ropes from and is corrupted by his seniors at the office, most notably Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, who hasn’t put back on the weight he lost for Dallas Buyers Club, but who makes a strong impression in a pretty small role). The brokerage goes kersplat after the crash of 1987, and Belfort winds up at a semi-pro penny stock firm run by a dopey fellow named Dwayne (Spike Jonze, director of this year’s film Her, in another of Wolf of Wall Street’s many memorable glorified cameos). Here, Belfort learns in even greater detail how to fleece leads of their money and, with the help of new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and some others, he opens his own brokerage, which is where things really start to get out of hand, in pretty much every conceivable way.

It’s pretty well documented at this point that Scorsese had a little trouble meeting deadlines with this film. It’s a huge thing—it has his longest running time ever for a feature film (179 minutes; 30 seconds longer than Casino), and the budget is reported at $100 million, which is more than Scorsese’s movies tend to make in the domestic box office. Originally the film was set to open nationwide in mid-November, but it was pushed back to a Christmas Day opening at the last minute, and Scorsese barely got it finished in time to meet the deadline for national critics groups’ screenings for year-end awards consideration. And, frankly, you can tell seeing the film that Scorsese had to rush it, at least a little bit; especially in the first third of the film there’s a recurring feeling of choppiness. The editing is pretty sloppy, the continuity bad, and you get the impression that whole big chunks of scenes were cut out without much work done to smooth over transitions. There are many flaws in the movie like this—aside from being a big film, it’s a messy film. But it doesn’t matter, as it is also a great film.

Here’s hoping that Scorsese gets to release a more polished director’s cut when it is time for its home video release; I pretty well loved the film as it is, and I think Scorsese tinkering with it more would only serve to improve it. It’s rare that a filmmaker can only go up from an already great film, and I hope Scorsese and Paramount take the opportunity. But let’s say that they don’t, and we forever keep exactly what we have here. For one thing, Jonah Hill is amazing. When he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Moneyball, I thought that was a little overzealous of the Academy, but here he proves that he really does have the acting ability to warrant that level of accolades—this has to be the best work he’s ever done, and this coming from a fan of Hill’s work. Comparatively, I’m not as sold on Leo’s performance here: His voiceover can get kind of grating and/or lazy, and I’m not sure that his personality is big enough to pull off a character as large as Belfort. But Leo redeems himself in one of the greatest scenes of the year, which involves him and Jonah Hill consuming Lemmons, a particularly strong type of Quaaludes that they get their hands on.

While a lot of Scorsese’s signature directorial flourishes are on display—his usual team of filmmakers are working behind the scenes, he’s still great at using pop music (though here not his usual Rolling Stones, but more alternative stuff like “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Jet Boy Jet Girl”), etc.—Wolf of Wall Street does not feel like the work of a 70-year old director. This is easily Scorsese’s edgiest film in years.

When you think about it, a lot of films about the stock market are structured like gangster movies, such as Wall Street (which is name-checked here, but for my money, Wolf of Wall Street is a far superior film) and Boiler Room, for example. So it’s nice that Scorsese, one of the all-time masters of the gangster film genre, has finally given a Wall Street movie a shot. He does an excellent job. Despite the long runtime, if anything I wanted the film to be quite a bit longer, not quite a bit shorter. I’ll hope for a director’s cut to surface in the future, but even if that comes, it seems a shame that this didn’t wind up being season six of The Wire. | Pete Timmermann

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