Film reviews 53: “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “American Hustle”, “Anchorman 2”, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, “Last Vegas”, “Delivery Man” and 7 others…

casino robert de niro sharon stone 2This month: “American Hustle”, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”, “Calendar”, “Casino” (pictured above), “Delivery Man”, “The Departed”, “Last Vegas”, “Meek’s Cutoff”, “Nashville”, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, “Shampoo” “The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

The average rating is 5.85/10 with film of the month being The Wolf of Wall Street. Follow @halfacanyon for more.

American Hustle (2014) – 3.5/10

Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell, Eric Warren Singer
Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis CK
“She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.”

american hustleIt makes sense that David O. Russell would tackle the FBI’s undercover ABSCAM operation considering the filmmaker himself has been a phony since the lacklustre box office receipts for I Huckabees. After now three awards-conscious compromises, it’s unthinkable than Russell would even dare include an unconventional symbol in his title. While I’m not claiming Russell’s early films are classics (they definitely are not), he’s settled for a competent groove that pleases viewers with low expectations and easily pleased Academy voters. (Some crude assumptions made there, but my point is made.)

The old Russell threw fits on the set of I Huckabees and Three Kings. The new Russell is a calmer presence who fittingly only lost his cool when Lawrence didn’t win a BAFTA last year. With an eye on the prize, American Hustle assembles the key components of Silver Linings Playbook, with bonus Christian Bale and Amy Adams. It’d be more exhilarating if the talented cast (yeah, I think we have to say this about Cooper now) had a more focused script – despite the jokey introduction of “Some of this actually happened”, the deviation is an indecisive mess.

Set in the early ‘80s, Bale and Adams play Irving and Sydney, two con artists with comically unfashionably attire. They are both drawn into an FBI operation by an agent, Richard (Cooper), in which they use a fake sheikh to catch the Mayor of New Jersey (Renner) in the act of corruption. Thrown into the mix is Lawrence as Irving’s ditzy ex-wife Rosalyn, whose unreliable presence threatens the undercover guises.

The scenes are largely a series of blurry arguments and power struggles, marred by uniformed characterisation. Although the central cast effectively play two roles, there’s little grounding for either part. How can you fool a criminal mastermind when you’re barely a real person? Lawrence’s role is phoned in and interchangeable with Aunt Hilda from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. And don’t get me started on Bale and Adams laughing hysterically in a toilet cubicle – Russell, your montages won’t iron out that sequence.

In typical Russell 2.0 fashion, the heist is put to the side for a love triangle that’s mostly played for feeble laughs. The self-satisfied direction eats up the rest of the time, largely lifting from Scorsese’s Casino – right down to a cameo that I’m fairly convinced is direct reference. However, even Russell 1.0 was no Scorsese.

Any richness or texture is mostly a con, right down to the year-long pretence that the film would be released as American Bullshit. And maybe it is just marketing celebrities doing funny things irrespective of the final product: Bale wears a wig, Lawrence does karaoke, Adams does an accent. The only person I empathised with was Louis CK as a cynical agent: amazed at the operation’s respect, while staring at Bradley Cooper with hatred.


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
(2013) – 6.5/10

Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, Meagan Good, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate

anchorman 2With a hefty advertising campaign, Rob Burgundy has seemingly been everywhere apart from cinema screens. The promotional surge has taken advantage of a comic character that’s still regularly in fans’ memories, with enough distance for a sequel to gain curiosity. There’s more logic in writing another chapter after Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, given how the series is really gags and characters stuck in their ways. With an established ensemble, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is like a second season of a sitcom – one where everyone involved is, ironically, too big for TV. In that sense, much is repeated, but with an even faster gag rate and awareness of what the viewer wants.

Will Ferrell reprises the anachronistic newscaster Burgundy with ease, as do his broadcasting gang: Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Champ Kind (David Koechner), while Adam McKay returns as director and co-writer. In fact, Anchorman 2 applies some unexpected satire about modern news reporting. While in the first film Burgundy finally accepts women in the workforce, he now has to contend with the concept of a 24-hour news channel and working for a black woman (Linda, played by Meagan Good). Okay, it’s not exactly The Day Today, but it’s something.

The news crew’s idiocy fits in with what turns out to be a formula for popular news stories. Burgundy accepts he can’t compete with “real news”, so what’s the solution? Report what America wants to hear.

The dumbed down stories score highly with viewers and, if changed to page views, applies to a certain type of buzz journalism (displayed as a feed). Brick invents dangerous weather stories when there are none. Fantana counts down his favourite vaginas. The first news slot contains nine animal stories in three hours.

For a while (approximately the first half), this storyline does fine as it’s propelled by so many one-liners it’s impossible to catch them all – at least, in a packed screening where laughter makes some points inaudible. On paper, many of the gags fail. (Imagine explaining an “I love lamp” t-shirt to a stranger.) In fact, several setups are glaringly obvious. Yet, when guessing the punchline, an unexpected one-liner appears. With familiarity, everyone’s reaction shot becomes its own joke. Some of the jokes might follow on from the first film, but I would contend these characters thrive on repetition – all that’s meant to change is the world around them. I wasn’t a biggest fan of the original, and find this to be a step up: Burgundy is so finely established that he’s practically the straight man, making his surroundings to adapt to him.

There is a 30-minute gap, however, when the 24-hour news plot strand fizzles out after an hour, before an astonishing finale. Anchorman 2 is far too long at 119 minutes, considering its lack of dramatic intensity, tension or emotional value. Think back to how the original was cut to 91 minutes, despite having enough footage for its outtakes sequel Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. Several scenes are obviously the product of lengthy improvisations, given the inconsistent editing of Brick’s introduction and much of Ron’s body language, and I’d be curious if a rumoured alternate version pops up.

Considering how much advertising has been funnelled towards the Burgundy character (including an autobiography available in shops), a large gamble was taken with finances, time and reputation. It largely works. And given the cameos (which I won’t spoil), McKay and Ferrell are also intent on pulling the rug beneath the viewer – while laying a familiar blanket underneath.


Calendar
(1993) – 7.5/10

Director/Writer: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Arsinée Khanjian, Ashot Adamyan, Atom Egoyan
“You move towards him like a beaten and punished animal begging for forgiveness. Forgiveness for what?”

calendar 1If I was presenting this year’s Oscars, I’d open up with a song parody where I change the chorus of Blondie song “Atomic” to “Calendar…” Well, Atom Egoyan would laugh. Judging from Calendar, the filmmaker has an idiosyncratic method of viewing scenarios, even if his obsession is with unnoticed surveillance. His perplexing drama unveils a romantic relationship simultaneously during and after the decline, all told indirectly via video cameras and answer phone messages. Like a calendar itself, the information becomes colder and less human, even when love is involved.

Much of the film involves a photographer (Egoyan himself) hired for a calendar depicting Armenian buildings. Unable to speak the language, he brings his bilingual wife (Khankian) to converse with the Armenian travel guide (Adamyan). By hiring his wife as a translator, the photographer accidentally sets the pair up for a relationship that develops in front of him, on camera, in a language he can’t understand. The torture builds and builds, with the crescendo backed with guilt: when questioned, she denies. But of course she would say that, right? No?

The escalating tension is punctuated with flashforwards to Egoyan’s character drinking wine with a series of women (escorts?). Like Exotica, the obfuscation is deliberate and rewarding; like seeing your wife speak intimately with a man in different language, a number of paranoid theories arise – and they may be more thrilling than reality. But Calendar is also obsessed with the past and the unremarkable remnants that hang on the wall just to signify a month, or just an off-hand answer phone message.


Casino
(1995) – 7.5/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci
“If a guy fucking slipped on a banana peel, they’d bring me in for it.”

casino robert de niro sharon stoneCasino could enter a cinematic lexicon and knock the half-empty glass of water off the table. It may be a retread of GoodFellas (even without considering the return of De Niro, Pesci and Pileggi’s script), but that’s a good thing. Or is it bad… fellas? There’s definitely enough that makes Casino more than GoodFellas 2, and the comparisons are largely to do with quality: Scorsese one again finds the unwritten guidelines in the crime world, then whacks that etiquette with a crowbar, probably to the sound of a showtune.

De Niro is a criminal who becomes a comparatively straight businessman to run a casino. His demeanour comes with the suit and a professional attitude that can appease the law, while still frightening away anyone trying to swindle the card dealers. Well, most of them. However, De Niro’s world is turned upside like a slot machine by two calamitous relationships: one with drug addict Sharon Stone, the other with the impeding influence of sociopath Joe Pesci.

Pesci once again plays a violent menace who, despite his size, doesn’t refrain from kicking the stranger who adopts the wrong synonyms. For De Niro, it’s rather bad luck and one of the few cases where the house doesn’t win. The viewer is treated to the slow decline for nearly three glorious hours that’s classic Scorsese performing an encore: two (not just one!) running monologues, devilishly slick montages, feuding criminal families.

The GoodFellas aspect does linger in the final act, that loses the individuality of Casino – far after the actual casino spices up the tension, the breakdown of relationships is expected and can feel like running down the clock. In particular, Stone’s arc jars when her role complicates the more emotionally complex spat between De Niro and Pesci that predicates on keeping up appearances – more important to De Niro than his marriage.

It’s too easy to assume Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci are too comfortable with the material. They probably are comfortable, but I also don’t believe they’re complacent. Every frame is fussed upon with small Scorsese details, right down to the angle of an explosion or when certain items of clothing reappear. With the gang back together, it’s hardly a gamble.


Delivery Man
(2014) – 5.5/10

Director/Writer: Ken Scott
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Cobie Smulders, Chris Pratt
“I want to keep you all to myself.”

delivery man vince vaughan cobie smoldersWhen it came to writing this review, my notepad had only one scribbled sentence following the press screening: “His Facebook skills have improved since The Internship.” As with most Vince Vaughn vehicles, there isn’t that much depth to Delivery Man, yet it’s his most watchable film since Swingers (and, embarrassingly, I’ve seen pretty much all of the trash, including The Watch and Couples Retreat).

That reason is down to director Ken Scott. While Vaughn is the main actor, it’s distinctly Scott’s film – which means Vaughan’s tiresome schtick and caffeinated ranting is replaced with Scott’s less tiresome schtick. The offbeat direction is particularly apt considering the offbeat plot requires a straight performance from Vaughan. And that plot, well…

Delivery Man is a remake of 2011’s Starbuck, also directed and co-written by Scott. I haven’t seen Starbuck, but from research doesn’t seem to be vastly different, other than the cast and switching languages from French to English. David Wozniak (Vaughn) is literally a delivery man for a meat shop, and finds his metaphorical job as a delivery man has come to haunt him: he regularly donated sperm at an early age, and is effectively a biological parent to 533 children – 142 of whom take legal action to find the identity of their father.

As a twist, David’s girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) is expecting their first baby. She is, however, kept in the dark, as David instead confers with his lawyer and likeable friend Brett (Chris Pratt re-embodying Andy Dwyer). With that, Emma is mostly off-screen and unintentionally treated like David’s unwanted children.

But David is mostly alone in his suffering – he’s mocked in the media (even if they don’t know his identity), the family business is under strains, and he’s too frightened to tell Emma. Knowing Vaughn’s persona suddenly becomes helpful, as it’s certainly something to see him miserable and silent. Whether he’s playing basketball in the rain or shyly pretending to bump into one of his children, there’s something oddly touching about Vaughn not ranting obnoxiously. Ken Scott is no Paul Thomas Anderson, but there’s a parallel with Punch-Drunk Love working because of Adam Sandler’s terrible film history.

Delivery Man turns predictably sentimental at most plot steps, with his interactions with Emma being the most cliched. It’s harder to fault his peculiar relationship with 142 children; there might be mawkish twists and dialogue, but the whole gang together are frightening and, under a different director, would represent a horror film.

And, yes, it does sound strange that biggest compliment is Vaughn finally approaches someone resembling a human being. Despite the end product, Vaughan’s career is built from decent concepts that are haphazardly executed. At least with Scott in charge, middle ground is established. After all, even box office poison can be diluted if the measurements even out.


The Departed
(2006) – 8.5/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: William Monahan, Alan Mak (Internal Affairs screenplay), Felix Chong (Internal Affairs screenplay)
Starring: Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga
“But they watch enough TV to know they have to weep after they use their weapons.”

the departed leonardo dicaprioOne way to bypass the outrage of a Hollywood remake of a recent Asian film? Be Martin Scorsese. Based on 2002’s Internal Affairs, Scorsese has a touch of his old playfulness and epic storytelling that encompasses both sides of the law – or rather the tunnel in between.

On one side is the police: Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon. On the other is the criminals: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ray Winstone. Except Damon is working undercover for the mobsters, while DiCaprio is really a policeman taking advantage of family connections to defy suspicions. And then there’s psychologist Vera Farmiga, who’s dating Damon and sort of seeing DiCaprio. With a mangled plot like this, it certainly helps when each cast member is a recognisable face and name.

If it sounds like a game of cat and mouse, just change the mouse to a rat. Then multiply it (in the way that rats allegedly do). Scorsese’s vibrant direction infuses energy into both sides, coming up with a chess puzzle where each character has a different relationship with everyone in the room. It’s also simple to follow because of Scorsese’s subtle manner of spoonfeeding the viewer with narrative, while throwing around flares with flair – deathly imagery, phones ringing at the wrong moment, firecrackers bursting in the absence of gunshots.

So many big personalities can threaten a picture’s cohesion, but each star is stuck in a role where the loudest voice stays alive – if being too loud risks death, just talk louder to save face. Nicholson might be a step too far, even if it’s physically impossible for him to not be charismatic. He has the wittiest lines, but is too well-written and snappy; his threats are followed by “Don’t laugh!” and it doesn’t quite work. Luckily, nearly everything else does.


Last Vegas
(2014) – 3/10

Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen
“My name is Sam. I’m available. I have a condom.”

last vegasThe morbidly titled Last Vegas turns out to not be so morbid after all. Its central cast is big Hollywood A-listers playing old friends (old in both senses of the word) who take a trip to Vegas just because they can. The creaking floorboards of death aren’t as important as making up for lost time – “58 YEARS LATER,” says the on-screen caption, omitting a winking emoticon.

When Billy (Michael Douglas) impulsively proposes to a woman half his age, a bachelor party is set in motion. Billy’s pals need some convincing, as it’s been a while since the gang last hung out properly. Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline are excited to escape everyday doldrums, while Robert De Niro sighs and has the same facial expression that probably occurred while reading the script. De Niro’s real reluctance is brought up later into the plot (and as the plot), in a rather inconsequential manner.

Really, Last Vegas is an excuse for four elderly celebrities to get fictionally hammered and dance with young women – early on, they judge a bikini contest and grant 10/10 to nearly every female contestant. If the trailer or advertising makes it look like The Hangover with old people, that’s not quite right, as there is no hangover. The comedy precedes the inevitable headache and regret, as the party goes on and on with little to lose. Freeman just so happens to win a jackpot in the casino. Alcohol just so happens to not have drastic effect. Young women just so happen to be attracted to men nearly three times their age.

Mary Steenburgen makes a brief appearance as a romantic target for De Niro, although she, like the other women, exists as a narrative prop rather than a character (which is noted whenever the men regularly forget a woman’s name). She does, however, create one of the few moments of tension – as someone who barely walks into their life. Similarly, all Douglas has at stake is whether he cancels his ill-advised marriage.

With so little to lose, Last Vegas turns into a party where the viewer isn’t offered a drink. There’s little to ponder (aside from gender politics that obviously didn’t develop during the 58 years). A better film would be the contract negotiations that explain how much the main four were paid. Oh well – at least they have a decent time.


Meek’s Cutoff
(2010) – 7/10

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond
Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan

meek's cutoffReichardt’s western multiplies Wendy and Lucy and sticks it in 1945. A group of wanderers search for water in a far-reaching desert; scenes consist of optical illusions where the actors walk into paintings, like a real life version of that scene from Mary Poppins. The colourful language is less apparent – no animation, no singing, just the driest of hope, sinking into the dirt. The performances match up to the gorgeous absence of green screen, and maybe – just maybe – the thirst is actually for some sort of control.


Nashville
(1975) – 4/10

Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Joan Tewkesbury
Starring: Ned Beatty, Ronee Blakley, Keith Carradine, Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Chaplin

nashville 2Several country musicians intersect in the run-up to a political rally, slightly reminiscent of Live Aid except not for charity and with even worse music. At nearly three hours, only glimpses of the ensemble are shown; to Altman’s credit, he squeezes in five hours of material. Still, the light comedy moments hit the most, rather than a greater sense of community – even the falsehood of playing up to the media or Elliott Gould. Imagine Dazed and Confused with just the jocks. Now add guitars. Now limit the chords to C and G major. Terrific ending, but too many aimless verses before the coda.


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
(2013) – 2.5/10

Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Steve Conrad, James Thurber (short story)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott
“Where are you now?”

secret life of walter mittyThe Walter Mitty character was itself dreamed up by James Thurber in a 1939 short story and has somehow snowballed into a soulless exercise in special effects. Despite a half-decent 1947 adaptation, Ben Stiller has dared to remake the story again – and it is here we discover Stiller dreams in expensive CGI filtered by industrious corporate videos, with an imagination rooted in forgetful Hollywood blockbusters and fast food advertisements.

For those unfamiliar, the original Walter Mitty is a shy, exhausted man who tires of his wife’s company and drifts off into war-influenced daydreams, rather like Snoopy’s pretend battles with the Red Baron. In Stiller’s update, the same character is now at Life magazine; bullied by his boss (Adam Scott), closer to the sack than he is with his mother (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn).

Walter silently and jealously handles images of beautiful landscapes for the publication, with many snapped by photojournalist Sean (coincidentally played by Sean Penn). As a reserved office drone, Walter stumbles over words and desperately wishes to string a few sentences together with co-worker and love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). It’s a role that demands an unfamiliar face, or someone who disappears into the crowd without interrupting the conversation. In other words, it needs someone other than Stiller.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is even more flawed during its selling point: the dreams themselves. Whether swimming away from a shark or leaping into a burning building, Stiller’s presence is too reminiscent of his many action films. Think back to The Watch (Stiller fights an alien), Tower Heist (Stiller robs a safe) or Night at the Museum (Stiller runs from dinosaurs). It’s actually harder to believe Stiller as an everyday employee, which unintentionally becomes the fantasy: an A-lister, sick of Hollywood, dreams about office monotony.

Many of Walter’s daydreams revolve around a global search for a missing photograph. The sequences look expensive, sure, but are a missed opportunity to let loose creatively. Otherwise, is there much point? In 2013, there’s nothing exciting about bland genre parodies that fizzle out after a few minutes. I only need to think back a year ago to Holy Motors that explored the medium’s possibilities with a similarly episodic structure. Even Sucker Punch – and this is definitely not flattering – possesses more imagination. The only moment when Stiller’s direction stretches itself is when product placement enters the frame, with the camera and script cunningly finding any way to shove in a Papa John’s reference.

The dreams follow the cliche that it’s unexciting listening to someone else’s dreams, especially when it combines with the other cliche of “…and then I woke up and it was all a dream.” The formula is overplayed for two hours, zipping back into reality like an episode of Scrubs without the humour. Walter awakes, yet there’s no humour; those around are the straight men not in on the joke, yet he by definition is the film’s straight man.

Strangely, less is learned about Walter as time passes by. There’s little indication as to why he’s so exasperated with him family – or if that’s even the case – because barely any of the two hours is spent on characterisation. (Wiig’s role is alarmingly stripped of personality, even in the dream world.) With such a thin script, I too often zoned out and became my own Walter Mitty, fantasising about the many other films I could be seeing instead.

After the first few scenes, it’s already apparent that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is really a collection of terrible Hollywood films Ben Stiller is threatening to make, all compiled in a larger one he shouldn’t have made in the first place.


Shampoo
(1973) – 4/10

Director: Hal Ashby
Writer: Robert Towne
Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn
“Is this what this is all for? To make this country a better place to live in?”

shampooWarren Beatty swans around as a lascivious hairdresser who beds the customers. However, it’s not just a sex comedy, with diversions toward Republican satire. Maybe it’s dated, but the political humour’s fairly blunt. Beatty’s swagger is like Russell Brand found a time machine, while Julie Christie proves that yes, the rumours are true. Aside from that, Shampoo is too tied to the era.


The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh
(1971) – 7/10

Original title: Lo Strano Vizio della Signora Wardh
Director: Sergio Martino
Writers: Vittorio Caronia, Ernesto Gastaldi, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero
Starring: Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, Manuel Gil
“I know you’re trying to escape me, but your vice is a locked room from the inside and only I have the key.”

the strange vice of mrs wardhSergio Martino’s first giallo murder mystery incorporates the genre’s sleazy, woozy elements with such casual precision, it’s almost disturbing. When the camera spins circles over a dead body, it could be Hitchcock – and then it cuts to ‘70s jazz inspired car jaunt with mindless dialogue.

The screenplay isn’t a classic, but is brief and silly enough to entertain between the lurid, glove-handed murders. Plus, some of the most unadvised messages to leave with a bouquet of flowers.


The Wolf of Wall Street
(2014) – 9/10

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Terence Winter, Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie
“The key to success in this racket is this little baby right here. It’s called cocaine. It’ll keep you sharp between the ears, and will also make your fingers dial faster.”

the wolf of wall street leo di caprio margot robbieThe titular wolf is barking inside Martin, a director who at the age of 71 still makes films with the howling energy of Mean Streets. Sure, Hugo and Shutter Island are comparatively blips, but – bearing in mind I’m a fan of Cape Fear, Casino, The Departed and even The Age of Innocence – here is probably the guy’s best film’s since GoodFellas.

Based on Jordan Belfort’s autobiography, The Wolf of Wall Street is a timely release about the excesses of greed that takes place in mansions and office blocks, with the side effects trickling down once the money has been spent. So excessive, it barely fits into a densely packed 179 minutes. Belfort is brought to an ultra-confident existence by Leonardo DiCaprio, on fine form as a stockbroker who makes a fortune by tricking clients into unwise investments. Does he spend the cash on DVDs or updating to a Letterboxd Pro account? Well, not quite, judging by an early scene where Jordan blows cocaine with a straw into a prostitute’s rear end.

There’s little reason for Jordan’s persuasive skills other than an arrogant phone voice. He could be the poster boy for an outbound call centre. It works, and he forms a company by hiring poorly dressed weed dealers and Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill). The formula for success is simple: follow the script. By chasing a Wall Street mantra that greed is good (expertly explained by chest-thumper Matthew McConaughey), the firm hits the jackpot. And then the party kicks in, far harder than Leo’s bash with Baz in The Great Gatsby.

Scorsese’s uncompromising vision is an exquisite, debauched side of Hollywood that arrives without a didactic message or judgemental tone (aside from an earned final shot that rivals the rat in The Departed.) A less courageous filmmaker would include a parallel about the victims. But Marty leaves them out, thrusting the viewer into a billionaire’s non-stop, coked-up nightmare.

The closest The Wolf of Wall Street comes to a victim is Naomi, Jordan’s suffering wife played by Margot Robbie. Naomi picks up endless gifts, including his vicious temper – it’s not pretty, even with Leo’s face. The decadence on display is often sickening, but also taps into a deeper, jealous part of the human psyche similar to American Psycho or watching Tony Soprano (screenwriter Terence Winter exec produced The Sopranos). After all, it’s simply mathematics that the more thrlling film would focus on the 1%, rather than the anonymous 99% who make up the prey of Wall Street.

However, there’s more than just three hours of hedonism. The underlying tragedy – and yes, it’s strange using that word considering the lack of sympathy – is the misery that comes with the lifestyle. Namely, the escalating drug abuse required to numb the stress and guilt. Or, as they put it, being “fucked up” is the only way to live.

Kyle Chandler provides the contrast as an FBI agent who turns down a bribe and takes public transport, while barely blinking an eyelid at Jordan’s boat (which even has a helicopter pad). While Chandler hardly resembles a victim, he embodies Jordan’s idea of a civilian untouched by Wall Street’s seduction; the looming shot of Chandler sitting on a train lies outside of our antihero’s POV, and is just as likely a pure fantasy grasping at life before the first act of fraud is committed.

It’s also darkly, nauseatingly hilarious for almost all of its three hours, with much of the comedy either in expense of the Wall Street pack or in revulsion at their excesses. There’s none of the pretend likeability or unjustified redemption that accompanies laughless misogyny like The Hangover or The Inbetweeners. Bearing in mind how Jordan is a scarily real person (the YouTube evidence is astonishing), the film can be seen as a litmus test, piling on the monstrosities until the guilt outweighs the absurdities – take Jordan beating his wife (or any of the other moments of violence that get diluted in the mayhem), which is the hardest slab of condemnation, yet still in line with the hapless, sociopathic slapstick that precedes it.

Remarkably, The Wolf of Wall Street remains electrifying throughout, despite the general rule that comedies (let’s just call it that for the sake of argument) fizzle out after 90 minutes. DiCaprio, as famed and overexposed as he is, turns out to be a diamond when it comes to physical humour – whether crawling on the floor, or taking drugs like Popeye ingesting spinach. He’s certainly moved on from the ‘90s and at no point does he climb arms stretched on his luxury yacht claiming, “I’m the king of the Waaaaaaalll Streeeet!”

Instead, Jordan sells you a pen. You may not like him. In fact, you almost certainly despise him. But he sells you that pen, sticks it into your eye, then reveals the ink is an amalgamation of cocaine and Quaaludes.

Side note: There were free pretzels at the press screening, and I didn’t take any because I am not Jordan Belfort.

Follow @halfacanyon for more.

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About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Feeling pullovered apart by clothes horses. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
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2 Responses to Film reviews 53: “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “American Hustle”, “Anchorman 2”, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, “Last Vegas”, “Delivery Man” and 7 others…

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  2. Pingback: Kenicky’s 2014 film roundup | HALF A CANYON FILM BLOG: A traffic jam when you're already a plate

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