Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 16, 2014)
For the latest effort from noted director Martin Scorsese, we head to 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Based on a true story, we meet Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a young, aspiring Wall Street broker. Alas, before too long, the stock market crash of 1987 means the loss of this job.
Jordan winds up in a low-rent gig marketing penny stocks. While this seems to be dead end, Jordan figures out how to turn big profits, and he soon founds his own firm. We follow his rise to enormous wealth as well as all the complications – personal and professional – that come along the way.
That synopsis summarizes a three-hour movie without much detail, but in a way, it may make the story sound like it offers more narrative than it does. Superficially, Wolf features a standard “rags to riches” tale with plenty of character and story moments along the way. After all, we watch the rise of Jordan’s business, the relationships he shares with business partners and two wives, and the pursuit of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). With all of that on display, Wolf could’ve been tremendously plot heavy.
But it isn’t. In GoodFellas, we find a climactic scene in which a cocaine-fueled Henry Hill goes on a manic journey to avoid the pursuit of legal authorities. When I watched Wolf, I got the feeling that Scorsese remembered that sequence and decided to base a three-hour movie around it.
Oh my, do we get lots of scenes related to drugs! When Wolf finished, I felt like I’d viewed three hours of nothing but drug use and sex. We get one scene of this sort after another, and it gets pretty tedious after a while.
I understand the point Scorsese wanted to make, as he desired to show the rampant, insane hedonistic excess of Jordan and his crew. That’s fine, but the overwhelming focus on the drugs/sex means the movie loses any impact. Rather than feel like these scenes involve us in the crazed world of Jordan and the others, we simply become bored. The movie can’t sustain the manic energy, and it gives us too few respites from the insanity to give those wild moments much impact.
Even with the serious nature of the material, the end result feels “light”. The movie comes across as a comedy, so the characters’ antics lack much power. Not only do Jordan’s manic exploits bore us eventually, but also they don’t provide much meat.
Again, I suspect some of this was intentional. I get that Jordan and company led utterly superficial lives and the story doesn’t grant them any emotions or thoughts that lend the roles more depth. They’re totally on the surface, and the film revels in their complete lack of introspection and humanity.
At 90 minutes, that’s probably a wildly entertaining movie. At two hours, it likely drags a bit but still keeps us with it.
At three hours, however, you may beg for it all to end. Like I’ve said, I believe Scorsese opted to make Wolf three hours to underline the excess; by subjecting us to endless scenes of depravity, we’re as worn out as the characters.
While I understand that stylistic choice, it just doesn’t work. With so much redundancy and no characters of interest, we lose interest in Jordan et al. well before the film finally comes to an end.
At least it’s fun for a while, as the first act brings us into the wild ride. It probably helps that this initial hour includes less of the drugs and sex that pervade the rest of the movie and includes most of the character/story development. Once it sets these elements in place, it becomes more tedious, but the flick manages to entertain us at the beginning.
It also comes with pretty solid acting. While neither DiCaprio nor his co-stars can provide substance to the thinly-written roles, they do bring dynamic energy to the parts and seem to have a blast along the way.
DiCaprio earned his fourth Oscar nomination for Wolf, and it may offer his best work of the bunch. The only flaw comes from the lack of depth to the part, and I can’t blame DiCaprio for that. He invests the role with amazing gusto and makes the one-dimensional character much more interesting than otherwise might have been the case.
Admittedly, DiCaprio is far too old for the role; while Leo remains boyish, not even a blind man would buy him as a guy in his early to mid-twenties. Still, he embraces the part so wholeheartedly that his “weathered” visage becomes only a brief and minor distraction.
Wolf may encounter some controversy due to its rampant nudity. Movies provide all sorts of types of nudity. There's nudity that's meant to be comedic, there's nudity that's meant to convey a negative impression, and there's nudity that's there because hot women look good naked.
One may defend the nudity in Wolf as being crucial to show the level of depravity in the characters' universe - and maybe that's fair. I don't think the movie needed it, though.
Am I really happy Margot Robbie showed us all she can? Damn right I am. Would the scene have worked just as well if she'd been in underwear instead? Yup, and virtually every other instance of nudity in the film was the same.
That said, I’m not complaining, as the nudity in Wolf becomes its biggest redeeming feature. At times, the film can offer a wild and entertaining ride, but it loses steam well before it ends and winds up as a tedious affair in need of editing.