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Film review: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Built For Speed

With the exception of Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese hasn’t made a completely convincing film since Casino; The Departed was miscast and Hugo was only half great. For the first hour of the Wolf of Wall Street, an adaptation of the biography of disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort, though, it seems as if Marty has returned to peak form. His intense and intimidating depiction of the New York share market bear pits of the 80’s, his evisceration of Wall Street greed and his hilarious depiction of Belfort’s Scarface-like appetite for drugs and power have, in that first hour, as much maniacal energy and humour and as many guilty thrills as his best work.  Unfortunately, Wolf peaks too early and after three hours in the company of Belfort and his deranged rat pack, we start to feel like a sober person stuck in an elevator with a raging drunk.

Scorsese tells Belfort’s story as a classic satanic seduction although it’s money rather than any individual who lures the innocent but ambitious young man into a world of excess, avarice, drug abuse and self-destruction.  When the 1987 stock market crash skittles his Wall Street career, Belfort (Leonardo Di Caprio) enters the sordid world of the boiler room, a decidedly dodgy high pressure sales set-up where brokers bully struggling working stiffs into purchasing virtually worthless shares.  Using a potent mix of hubris, immorality and carefully-constructed sales pitches, Belfort reaps huge commissions from his boiler room trades that eventually allow him to establish the firm, Stratton Oakmont.  With a motley collection of associates – including the strange Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) – who share his love of money and drugs, Belfort turns a small-time scam into a profit making behemoth.  His stratospheric but dubious success soon, however, draws the attention of relentless FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler).

The Wolf of Wall Street is not about the mechanics of the share-trading world; audiences will leave the film knowing as much about the industry as when they entered. It barely qualifies as an FBI crime procedural as Denham is a peripheral character for much of the film.   Also, the film is only partially concerned with the politics and morality of a nation that allows maniacally greedy people like these to flourish.  Scorsese’s purpose with Wolf, it seems, is to gleefully stuff the audience’s face into the cesspit of Belfort’s crazed world.  As much as he condemns Belfort’s monstrous greed, Scorsese seems to delight in the hedonistic male fantasy of booze-guzzling, Quaalude-gobbling, coke-snorting, dwarf-tossing excess.

The carnival of indulgence on display here is at first a shocking and powerful statement of a world gone mad but Marty recycles the scenes of debauchery so often that they become mind-numbingly repetitive.  Scorsese also allows scenes to go too long, particularly those involving Leo and Jonah Hill bellowing at each other in a cocaine rage or slurring their way through a Quaalude haze.

Marty also, disappointingly, recycles elements of his previous films.  With hard-rock driven montages documenting Belfort’s rise to infamy, lengthy tracking shots, characters addressing the camera and narration from Leo that sounds remarkably like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, Wolf bears a striking resemblance to Goodfellas. While we might welcome the idea of Marty recapturing the inspiration of his 1990 gangster masterpiece, having him simply plonk a Goodfellas template over Belfort’s story makes Wolf feel overly-familiar and stale.  Scorsese also seems to have taken a few unwelcome cues from films like The Hangover as Wolf features countless slow motion scenes of Belfort and his buddies doing drugs, going crazy and dry humping unsuspecting passers-by.

Overlong and indulgent as it is, Wolf still contains a wonderful collection of characters. Leo’s Belfort is a fascinating fusion of Gatsby, Howard Hughes and Gordon Gecko.  Like them, Belfort is obscenely wealthy, mysterious, mercurial and charismatic but with an uncontrollable ambition that ultimately proves disastrous.  Leo is particularly impressive as the younger, greener Belfort where his acting shows restraint and subtlety that contrasts markedly with his more deranged depiction of Belfort in the latter part of the movie.  While Leo exudes a seductive power in these latter scenes – particularly when rallying the troops with an outrageous sermon about the godliness of greed – he increasingly relies on tortured, contorted facial expressions and slobbering psychotic meltdowns.

Jonah Hill delivers a very unusual performance as the unhinged Azoff portraying him as repulsive creep with virtually no redeeming features.  With his bizarre, over-excited schoolboy manner, hideous clothes and prominent gleaming white teeth, he is mainly in the film as an oddity to be laughed at.  Australia’s Margo Robbie (Neighbours and About Time) impresses as Jordan’s second wife, the stunning but trashy Brooklynite Naomi although she isn’t quite as memorable as Scorese’s previous leading ladies such as Sharon Stone and Lorraine Bracco.  Although he only appears briefly, Matthew McConaughey has justifiably earned plaudits for his bizarre and hilarious turn as Jordan’s original mentor Mark Hanna who taught him that cocaine and strippers were a vital part of the share trading world.  The film also features a few welcome veterans with Rob Reiner as Belfort’s comically volatile Father “Mad” Max and Joanna Lumley as Naomi’s sophisticated but morally dubious aunt.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a giant lumbering mess of a film that overstays its welcome by about 45 minutes but it contains enough outrageously fun moments, guilty pleasures and bursts of inspired acting to make it worth the journey.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Biopic/ comedy/ drama.

Classification: R.

Director(s): Martin Scorsese.

Release date: 23rd Jan 2014.

Running time:  180 mins.

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