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'Wolf of Wall Street' lacks energy

New Scorsese film is worst of his career

POSTED: December 26, 2013 1:00 a.m.

I recently wrote parts of “American Hustle” seemed like a Martin Scorsese film without the energy. “The Wolf of Wall Street” actually is a Scorsese film without the energy.

This three-hour, exhausting epic is based on the true story of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, after a brief period of miseducation at a “legitimate” Wall Street firm, makes a gross fortune selling penny stocks.

He, his business partner Donnie (Jonah Hill) and a crew of drug-dealing losers he trains to be sales sharks grow the company into one of the most notorious on Wall Street.

Along the way, Belfort acquires hundreds of millions of illegal dollars, a trophy wife (Margot Robbie) and a serious substance abuse problem. He and his cohorts indulge in prostitutes, midget tossing and every form of debauchery imaginable.

The film’s greatest flaw is the same as its protagonist’s: excess.

It’s too long. There is so much gratuitous nudity and sex the movie narrowly avoided an NC-17 rating, and nearly all of it is unnecessary. Too much time is spent showing Belfort and his cronies acting like total jackasses.

Meanwhile, what is all of it supposed to mean?

It is structured like a tragedy, but there is nothing tragic about Belfort’s story because he never shows the potential for greatness. He is a scumbag from the beginning. It isn’t tragic that he loses his money, and we are given no reason to believe he might have been something greater had he never become rich.

If this is supposed to be an indictment of Wall Street greed, it fails for a number of reasons.

For one, no adult who has lived in this country the past five years needs to be reminded of Wall Street greed and excess, particularly not in the antagonistic tone the movie occasionally affects.

For another, the movie finds all of Belfort’s antics amusing, judging by how much of the running time is spent showing their deplorable behavior. Even when Belfort, his wife and Donnie are literally going down with a ship, the movie plays it for laughs.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is also sexist. The filmmakers wanted to show Belfort’s depravity, I suppose, but the film’s gaze objectifies women so egregiously and so frequently it is the film that seems depraved, not its characters.

This seemed like an ideal project for Scorsese, with its New York setting, themes of greed and criminal enterprise and biopic structure. The final product suggests just the opposite, though, it was a mistake for Scorsese to take on the project in the first place.

The director revives many of his trademark stylistic tics: a protagonist narrating directly into the camera, rock music soundtrack that dominates the scene and a character indulging in excess even as his house of cards crumbles.

These Scorsesian elements of style combined with a story equally typical of his career make it seem like Scorsese is regressing or going through the motions. “Hugo” stretched the director much farther than “Wolf.”

This is arguably Scorsese’s worst film, but it is unquestionably a career low point for his editor of more than 40 years, Thelma Schoonmaker, whose work is often the most distinctive element of Scorsese’s films.

Only the editor and director know exactly how the editing decisions were made, but this three-hour movie could have told the same story more effectively in two hours.

So many scenes drag on interminably. Unless it’s George C. Scott in “Patton,” a monologue has no business lasting five or more minutes. “Wolf” makes us suffer through several of Belfort’s pep talks to his employees. DiCaprio overacts in all of them, and each one goes on too long.

The movie does have its moments. In short supply, some of Belfort’s misadventures are funny. Robbie is absolutely luminous. And Matthew McConaughey contributes the best scene of the film.

However, none of that saves this disappointing, self-indulgent misstep from one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out.


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