Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

I want to hold off on making any kind of declarative statements about The Wolf of Wall Street until I see it again. It reminded me a bit of when I saw Django Unchained last year (coincidentally another film released on Christmas day that has a great performance from Leonardo DiCaprio): here’s a film from one of my favorite American filmmakers, but something just felt off about it. The pacing felt all wrong at times in Tarantino’s film, but I chalked that up to the fact that it was, sadly, the first time he had to work without his go-to editor Sally Menke (who had tragically died in 2010), whose absence was quite noticeable. Martin Scorsese, however, didn’t have to replace a long-time collaborator and good friend at editor, so he doesn’t have that excuse, for Thelma Schoonmaker did work on The Wolf of Wall Street. Which makes the whole thing so confounding: how in the hell did these two think this version of The Wolf of Wall Street resembled a complete film? Not only does the film resemble something hastily stuck together with scotch tape, it also lacks the headlong energy of the film it is most being compared to, Casino.

I’m not saying it’s bad — because there are many, many times throughout its three hour runtime that I was enthralled (or laughing my ass off, for the film is very funny). But it doesn’t really earn its length. I never felt like Casino was a three hour film, but boy did I begin to feel that final 60 minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street. And I think one of the film’s biggest flaws is that it think excess is a subtle substitute for that kind of headlong energy found in Casino or Bringing Out the Dead. It uses some of the same narrative tricks that Goodfellas implemented (there’s a moment where DiCaprio talks directly to the audience, explaining what was going on in the room where he works, Henry Hill-like) like multiple voice over narrations, but it lacks the urgency in how that story is told. The film is lacking something; there’s no getting around it. Perhaps my concerns would disappear with another viewing. Like I said, I want to see The Wolf of Wall Street again. It almost demands a second viewing because of just how much happening on the screen while you watch it.

But the story of Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) and his merry band of Hedonists (most notably Donnie Azoff played by Jonah Hill), and all of the debauched yens they succumb to, begins to tread water after about the 150 minute mark. The movie feels so disjointed at the end (I thought it had ended two different times). Oh, here’s Belfort on a boat in a storm; here he is sitting at a table talking to some federal agents; here he is making an infomercial; here he is talking to those same agents again; here is wearing a wire; here he is getting arrested...and so on. All of those moments feel so disconnected; or, better yet, they feel like they’ve been dropped in on the viewer with their larger context removed. Those scenes with Belfort made me shift in my seat (I never checked the time, but I was tempted to) because they kept coming on the heels of what felt like natural endings for the film. It wasn’t as bad as Return of the King, but it made me think of it.

Over and over, the film would gain momentum and then screech to a halt; its rhythms in certain sections felt so uncharacteristically off. Perhaps this is because of the locked-in release date for the film, and so Scorsese and Schoonmaker just threw together what they could (apparently the film had to go from a four hour cut to a three hour cut) and it looks every bit a slapped together effort in parts. The aforementioned scene of Belfort and Azoff riding out a storm on Belfort’s yacht seems so superfluous (my wife turned to me at that point and just asked, “what the hell is this movie?”). And I get it, I mean that’s probably the point of Scorsese’s film: everything about these people’s lives is superfluous. But boy did that scene just come off as flat to me. Again, excessiveness on the screen does not necessarily equate to energy emanating from the screen. So I was just waiting for that scene to come to an end and put me out of my misery.

Similarly, there are some odd cuts at the end. When Belfort wears a wire and is told to incriminate all of his co-workers, there is a moment where he’s eating lunch with Azoff, and he writes a note on a napkin that informs him he’s wearing a wire and that he shouldn’t say anything that can incriminate him. Well, the next scene is Belfort being awoken by the federal agents (led by Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights”) holding the napkin, informing Belfort that he’s going to jail. Okay. How did he get the napkin? Did Azoff rat out Belfort? Was it found with the feds raided the building (probably)? I don’t need a beat by beat explanation of how they got the napkin, but it’s such an odd cut that feels designed to do nothing more than quickly tidy up the movie.

Okay, I’m getting too negative here. Like I said, there is so much to like about The Wolf of Wall Street. Primarily, this is Leo’s movie. He owns every scene and seems to be having a helluva time playing Belfort. Make no mistake, the film depicts these men as the douchebags they are, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify the film as comedy. The Wolf of Wall Street is really funny in parts, and that’s almost all due to the sheer enthusiasm and energy brought to the performance by DiCaprio. It’s the best thing I’ve seen him do, and it may just go down as the one performance he’s most remembered for.

Specifically, I am thinking of two scenes that are  brilliant displays of physical acting. The first is a moment where Belfort, via voiceover, informs of his morning ritual with his wife (the fantastic newcomer Margot Robbie): an hilarious argument where Belfort, perched on his knees (its almost like he’s in a constant position of asking for forgiveness), argues with his wife about the name Venice. She wants to know if he’s been messing around on her because he’s been saying this name in his sleep. While he tries to think of a way to weasel out of the precarious spot he’s in, Scorsese cuts away to one of the film’s more wild (and wildly hilarious) scenes where Belfort has hot wax poured on him by a dominatrix named Venice. The energy that DiCaprio expends in this scene is nothing short of phenomenal, mostly because DiCaprio’s face turning red and his neck veins bulging, it never feels he’s overacting in a bad way. And that’s why it works so damn well. It’s one of the best scenes in the film, particularly in the way that Robbie plays off DiCaprio, milking the gag of her throwing cold water on this wild animal, and him getting more and more pissed each time she does it.

Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s absolutely over-the-top, but it is so in the best possible way — the way in which Scorsese so brilliantly and singularly does excessive. And perhaps the best scene in the film (and certainly the one I’ve heard the msot people talk about) is the scene where Belfort, hopped up on Quaaludes (“I discovered a new phase: the Bell’s cerebral palsy.”), tries to make it home before Azoff, who is also hopped up on Quaaludes and is using Belfort’s recently tapped phone, says something stupid (likely) that could incriminate them both. It’s a showcase scene for Leo, who I really want to see do a physical comedy now after witnessing his contorted efforts to get to his car. The scene is some seriously brilliant physical acting by DiCaprio, and it is a scene that somehow pulls off being hilarious, sad, and pathetic.

I don’t understand the complaints levied against Scorsese and co., saying that he doesn’t condemn these characters enough. Honestly, how can anyone watch the scene where Belfort explains via voice over that Brad (Jon Bernthal from “The Walking Dead”, who is really great in this) commits suicide and then segues to the next scene with a nonchalant, “Anyway,” and think that Scorsese is letting these guys off easy. The final hour of the film felt like nothing but condemnation. In fact, the only character that I was remotely happy to see show up near the end was Bernthal’s Brad because at least his crimes felt petty enough that you didn’t mind laughing at him. There is an argument between him and Azoff near the end of the film that takes place in a parking lot that seemingly goes on forever. I was so tired of Jonah Hill by this point that all I wanted to do was yell at the screen, “Just give him the damn briefcase already!” It’s another example of how some scenes at the end could have been tinkered with, but I also think Scorsese is doing something here that is just as deliberate as the scene with the yacht in the storm: he’s making sure we’re sick of seeing these characters. They are deplorable, and the scene in the parking lot was like finger nails on a chalkboard to me, and I think that’s the way Scorsese and his writer Terence Winter (the two work together on “Boardwalk Empire”) want it to come across.

At the beginning of the film, I was laughing a lot at/with these characters. So kudos to Scorsese and Winter for making sure audiences turn on these people. This isn’t a tragedy because we feel bad for these characters (I love the pseudo-tragic tone and the way Scorsese shoots the scene where Belfort attempts to kidnap his own child — there’s nothing tragic about it; it’s merely pathetic) and what comes of their lives; it’s a tragedy because nothing is learned in this movie. These men and their lifestyles and their twisted ethos is perpetual. By the end, nothing has changed (I love the callback to the “sell me this pen” moment at the end), and Belfort is simply just peddling the same bullshit in a different arena. We’re not supposed to think their antics are cute or funny, but that doesn’t mean we’re not supposed to laugh during the film. And since the film is funny and I did laugh a lot, that doesn’t mean I believe that the filmmakers are making light and condoning Belfort’s escapades.

I’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street described as a three hour version of the memorable cocaine-induced montage that marks the end for Henry Hill in Goodfellas. I don’t know. There are too many moments during The Wolf of Wall Street that lack that kind of frenetic energy. Besides, I think Scorsese already made that movie — it was called Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese’s most criminally underrated films). I think the sloppiness of the film’s editing gets in the way of The Wolf of Wall Street being on a par with the exhilarating craziness of Bringing Out the Dead or, as I alluded to above, the headlong energy found in Casino with its great musical cues, patented Scorsese whip pans, or other techniques the old master usually employs. Again, I really feel like the editing here is showing us all the excess in order to mask how un-energetic it comes across. Which, again, may have been Scorsese’s intent.

Rhythm and pacing is such an odd thing to criticize when discussing a Martin Scorsese/Thelma Schoonmaker collaboration. But no matter how tempted I may be to give Scorsese a pass because I know what he may have intended to do based on his previous films, there’s just no getting around the biggest hang-ups I had with The Wolf of Wall Street. And I think this is why I’m so excited to revisit the film. Now that I know Scorsese’s endgame, I’ll be curious to see if the film works on me differently a second time. Perhaps I won’t be so distracted (in a good way) by DiCaprio’s acting that I’ll be able to focus more on what Scorsese was trying to say with his aesthetic choices (I admit, even though I didn’t think music worked the way it usually works in a Scorsese film, I loved his use of the Lemonheads’ version of “Mrs. Robinson”), and maybe not just understand more fully what Scorsese was going for, but to see if I’m wrong in my assessment that The Wolf of Wall Street is a sloppy film filled with some spectacular scenes that never quite coalesce into the kind of finished product we come to expect from the American master.


  1. The smile I had on my face rarely ever left when watching this movie. Even in its darkest, most shocking moments. Good review.

    1. Thanks, Dan! I had a smile on my face for a lot of the movie, too. But after awhile, I just couldn't ignore some of the editing problems. We'll see if a second viewing changes my opinion...

  2. This is the first review I've read - including my own - that feels like it completely gets the "awesome/frustrating" push-pull I had watching the movie. I'm convinced that Scorsese would have been better off working on the movie till he was happy with it, and and aiming for a Christmas relase/early December critcs' screening window, because there's an astounding movie in this footage, bu it woudl take a lot of carving and resaping in the first and last hours needed to get us to it.

    1. Tim, I still have your review open in a tab, ready to read. I look forward to reading it. It's nice to know someone else out there that feels the film needs to be tinkered with. Unfortunately, Scorsese doesn't tinker. I remember when Gangs of New York was being released on DVD, and he was asked if he would release the longer version that supposedly existed. He kind of scoffed at the idea, indicating that the version released in theaters is the director's cut...what other reason would he have for approving its release? I don't know if he still feels this way, but everything since Gangs points towards us not getting our hopes up that we'll ever see a longer, more coherent version of the film. Oh well.

      It's odd, too, the more I think about the film's editing: I had the same problem with Shutter Island. I love that movie more than most, but I felt like it could have benefited so much from having the big "shock" reveal at the end (which is silly since the movie is never about the twist or shock or whatever...but I digress) placed at the beginning of the film. It would have made the characters psychological descent so much more powerful.

      Anyway, thanks for checking this out. I'll reserve more specific comments for your review.

  3. I read this late last night. A few thoughts ...

    * "It wasn’t as bad as Return of the King, but it made me think of it." I didn't have the same feeling, but I love that line. I didn't feel the movie had multiple endings (although I can see that retrospectively). Rather, at some point it just became redundant. A certain amount of redundancy is appropriate for this movie: it's about addiction, and the behavior of addicts is redundant. But when we're sitting there during yet another fire-up-the-troops speech that acts like we haven't been there before twice already, well, it doesn't feel like too much of a good thing -- it's just too much, well done though it is.

    * For what it's worth: My take with the note under the napkin was that the feds thought it fishy that Hill's character didn't implicate himself and simply walked into the restaurant and found the note under the napkin. Thus, I further assumed that this wasn't the first time a guy wearing a wire had tried that trick. That's a lot of assuming, so maybe it proves your point. But it came pretty easily for me.

    * You used a word in here that's exactly right: pathetic. These characters are pathetic. I marvel that anyone could watch this movie and not see that ... unless they, too, are pathetic.

    * I'm pretty sure it's cerebral palsy.

    * This movie reminded me a lot of DJANGO UNCHAINED, too. Lots of rough edges. But the filmmaking is alive in a way that so few movies are.

    1. Jason, redundant is a great word. I love the final shot (and the call back to the "sell me this pen" bit) because of the perepetual nature of these characters. So I get what Scorsese was going for, but you're so right about some of those scenes at the end. I think my problem is with what you're referring to: scenes at the end are delivered to the audience as if we hadn't seen them before. That--and not the quality of the work but in how it was presented--made me shift in my seat a bit...that's what made me feel the film's runtime.

      Also, it reminded me of my reaction to The Master as well. I get the effect the filmmaker is going for, but that doesn't mean I was engaged with it. Now, Anderson's film left me at arm's-length, and I just stopped caring about Freddie after awhile and began to admire the film's cold aesthetic from a distance.

      Scorsese's film, however, what's to immerse the viewer in this world, so I'm a little more willing to go along with its beats because we're never supposed to care about these characters. So I'm wondering if the effect Scorsese is going for is something that I'll be more forgiving of upon subsequent viewings (unlike my attempt to reconnect with The Master, which I still find to be one of the most frustrating film experiences I've ever had).

      As for the note thing, I'm with ya. When my wife and I were talking about the movie during the car ride home, she wondered what happened with that and how it all felt so random. My response was, "well I just assumed..." and like you say, that's fine, it comes easy to most people, but it also reeks of a sloppiness not often found in a film edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. At the very least, they could have provided a voice over to explain what's not like Scorsese is averse to such a device.

      Changed it to cerebral palsy. Thanks.

      Finally, yes, "rough edges." Great way of saying it. Like Tarantino, Scorsese can make films with plenty of warts, but, as you say, the filmmaking is so much more alive than most other films.

      Thanks for checking this out, Jason.

  4. I actually was kind of more concerned about the film's pacing at the beginning of the film -- specifically, McConaghey's chest-beating scene. It went on and on, and I kept waiting for it to end. It's not that I don't treasure McConaghey and DiCaprio being in the same scene together, because I do, it's just...

    It's the strangest thing. Ever since I came to film school, I've had this major issue with scenes/movies that are set in restaurants. I can't stand them. More to the point, I hate filming in restaurants. They're so un-cinematic to me... just people sitting down at tables, eating, talk, talk, talk. And of course when you're filming in a restaurant, you're worried about the management wanting you to hurry up with filming so that you can get out of there and they can go about their day and their business, because your filming in there is disrupting their business and annoying their costumers...

    Yeah, restaurant scenes get on my nerves nowadays. Haha.

    The other scene that bothered me because of its pacing was the scene with Kyle Chandler on the yacht. Well, it did at first, when Belfort just kept raving about how good he has it. But then there's that great brilliant pause -- nice suspense there -- before Chandler is like, "...Can you say that again?"

    From then on, the movie had me hooked.

    The film is maybe a little too long, and I can't comprehend the idea that a 4-hour cut exists somewhere, but overall, I found it one of the more fast-paced 3-hour films I've sat through, thanks to those hilarious sequences you mentioned. Looking on the bright side, I'm just grateful that the whole 3-hour movie wasn't set in that restaurant.

    Which reminds me: I still need to see My Dinner with Andre, because if even Louis Malle can't convince me that restaurants are cinematic, nobody can.

  5. Kevin J. Olson. I'm glad to see one of you guys write about these big new movies (a lot of you guys skipped Django and The Master). Nod to Jason Bellamy for stopping by as well (maybe, just maybe this movie will bring back The Conversations with Ed).

    I've only seen Wolf once, but I can't stop thinking about it. A movie that gets me thinking this much has something worth taking note of imo. They style, the colors, the framings alone had me so seduced that I found myself forgiving those little annoyances that were popping up. Then there was the acting, the comedy, and most of all that energy. Scorsese being able to pull that off at his age is bonkers.

    I also need to see it again. I really liked this review, but I'm waiting to see some more writing after the secodn viewing. The pacing of the movie worked for me, perhaps it's just one of those things.