The Wolf of Wall Street surprised moviegoers with winning five Academy Award nominations. Does the film merit the honors? This week, the Reel Dad takes a fresh look at the latest entry from Oscar-winning director Martin Scorcese.
Nobody makes movies that look or sound like movies by Martin Scorcese. This decorated director brings a visual distinction to his work, using the camera in innovative ways, freely incorporating voice-over to advance narration, willing to let a movie run three or more hours. And his approach works. Five of his last six films have been nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and The Departed won the big prize for 2006.
Like any director, however, Scorcese is only as effective as the scripts he works with. When he writes his own words — as he did for Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence and Casino — he maintains a purity of voice and image to connect the movies’ parts. But when he works with the scripts of others, the results can perplex (Shutter Island) or overindulge (Gangs of New York) or delight (as with Hugo which should have brought the director a second Oscar). At his best, he is a brilliant creator of visual stories; at his worst, he is an exaggerated, disconnected and distracted filmmaker.
The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorcese’s latest exploration of excess, reveals the best and worst of this legendary filmmaker’s work. On the plus side, the movie reveals the underbelly of the financial world with an unrelenting sense of awe. The director knows that what may lurk around the corner may be more than an audience can absorb. And he doesn’t care. He is going to tell the story. But Scorcese gets so caught up in the shock of his story of disgusting people doing disgusting things that he forgets to give the movie narrative clarity. He is so excited about making his movie that he seems to forget people will be watching as he returns to the self-indulgent confusion that defined his work in Cape Fear and The Color of Money.
In a performance reminiscent of his other recent screen work, Leonardo DiCaprio has many showoff moments as the ultimate movie bad guy, a selfish, irritating and fun-seeking animal who demonstrates no regard or respect for anyone beyond his immediate circle of enablers. His character, Jordan Belfort, climbs his way to the top of the financial world without regard to the risky behavior that will ultimately threaten his stability. Along the way he picks up a humorous sidekick, played by the irresistible Jonah Hill, who manages to bungle just about every scheme they pursue. Together they consume more inappropriate substances, utter more foul words and launder more money than any movie duo in memory.
What Scorcese overlooks in this excessive treatment, however, is a serious look into the financial side of Belfort’s life. While we see what the money buys, we learn little about what generates the cash. We see few signs of the brains behind the debauchery; the talent behind the trash. Because of this gap, the characters emerge as one-dimensional men who play hard without revealing that they work hard, too. And, when in doubt about how to tell the story, Scorcese resorts to the familiar long takes and voice overs that mark his cinema style. While those techniques work in many films, here they remind us of the substance we miss. The Wolf of Wall Street may shock with its subject matter but, because of fundamental flaws, fails to awe.
Film Nutritional Value
The Wolf of Wall Street
* Content: Medium. At first, all the excessive behavior entertains; as the movie reaches its third hour, however, the focus on the bad boys gets a bit old.
* Entertainment: Medium. As long as the film focuses on the moves these men make to secure their financial futures, it surprises with its insight into ambition and greed.
* Message: Medium. Scorcese’s unrelenting focus on how the selfish feed themselves could prompt us to consider how we treat those around us.
* Relevance: Medium. At second look, the film’s excesses undermine its impact.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: Low. The film is not appropriate for family viewing.
(The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R for “strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.” The film runs 180 minutes.)
3 Popcorn Buckets