SFSF Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf Of Wall Street was pretty good, but not amazing. For a Scorsese film, I was a slightly disappointed.

I wasn’t surprised though because I’m used to Scorsese’s rise-and-fall formula. Even in his best movies, the falls tend to drag on. I haven’t seen Raging Bull, which is blaspheme, but I have seen Goodfellas, which was a magical experience when I first watched it. A typical film enthusiast has his or her own canon of movies that have at most been life-changing or at least genre-transcendent.

Goodfellas is one of those films for me. I saw it during my early-20’s enlightenment, a period in which I heartily consumed Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson films. I would give Goodfellas a 9 out of 10, one point away from perfection because of its long, unneccessary ending. Despite that, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Robert Deniro, and brilliant scenes solidify ‘Fellas’ place high atop American Cinema. The steadicam shot of Liotta walking into a restaurant through the back is amazing. And Then He Kissed Me by The Crystals is the soundtrack while Liotta, bursting with cool, escorts his wife past a dozen admirers. That long shot has been imitated and worshipped by aspiring directors for over 20 years. There’s also a scene where Liotta’s Henry Hill and Pesci’s character are met at dawn by Henry’s mother-in-law after a night of partying. At the doorway of her daughter’s home she screams, “WHATS AMATTA WITH YOU HENRY????” while hitting him with a rolled-up newspaper. Liotta just looks at her silently for a second before bursting into laughter and turning around to head back to the car with Pesci, who mockingly repeats, “WHATS AMATTA WITH YOU??? WHAT’S AMATTA WITH YOU HENRY???”

Scorsese is a brilliant director of scenes and actors. When you watch Goodfellas for the first time, you might get a tiny bit antsy as hour three approaches, but it’s okay, because you know that you’ve witnessed something truly great. It’s like being exhausted at the end of a hike or something, a good kind of tired.

Scorsese admitted that the beloved film The Departed was his only movie with a plot, which is interesting because he didn’t write it. The Departed was a remake of a Hong Kong film from a few years prior. So he subtly admits to his weakness, which I think is a lack narrative cohesion. He’s not bad at all, but when you compare him to the best, other story tellers weave tighter, more coherent plots.

The Wolf of Wall Street is very entertaining. Leo DiCaprio never disappoints. He’s really invested in the character of Jordan Belfort and he’s perfectly cast. Only an extraordinarily talented, self-assured actor at the top of his game can play a role like this convincingly, and Leo does. Jonah hill is funny as Leo’s right-hand-man. There is a lot of nudity in the film, male and female. Lots of drugs and fancy cars. Also, midget exploitation. The film does a service by showing Wall Street absurdity to the masses. In one scene, Leo’s character begins to explain to the camera what it is that he’s doing -whom he’s taking advantage of and how- only to stop himself short and assume we don’t want to hear it, presumably because a film can only do so much.

There were a couple of edits in Wolf that didn’t seem professional to me. I noticed a shot or two where voice-over dubbing was a bit obvious. Nothing too glaring, but when everyone on the set is supposed to be the best at what they do, it’s kind of odd. Goodfellas has scenes of greatness, while Wolf’s scenes are merely good- and to me, when you couple that with Scorsese’s trademark 3-hour length and predictable story arc, it creeps a little closer to mediocrity. Near the end of Wolf, I wasn’t experiencing that feel-good exhaustion that I referenced earlier.

Somewhere between the middle and end of Wolf, there’s a scene where Leo & company are at sea during a massive storm. Aboard his beautiful, beached yacht in Italy, Belfort learns that there’s a problem with the gobs of money he’s stashed in Switzerland and he has only 24 hours to solve it. Despite severe weather warnings, Leo stubbornly ships out in a desperate attempt to secure his Swiss-housed savings. Within a few hours conditions get pretty nasty. There is screaming and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Scorsese wanted excess, and the viewer gets it. Had Wolf been directed by someone else, Leo could have once again died at sea, ending the film there. Instead, it trudges on into a depressing and unnecessary descent, where the viewer is left feeling like he’s been beaten up. Maybe that was intended.

The Wolf Of Wall Street is merely good- meaning it’s better than most of the junk that’s out there- but it isn’t near Scorsese’s best and it doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture. I give it 6 out of 10.

-If you want to read an entertaining book that chronicles the same era on Wall Street with insight beyond DiCaprio’s chopped monologues, I recommend Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis.

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