Movie Review: “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Martin Scorsese, USA 2013)

Since 1990, Martin Scorsese’s career has been maddening. Up to that time, he was one of the great American directors of all time, producing masterpieces like Taxi Driver (USA 1976), Raging Bull (USA 1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (USA/Canada 1988), and of course Goodfellas (USA 1990) and rarely making a major misstep. Then, his career apotheosis, the film he seemed destined to make, still didn’t win him the Oscar that had eluded him through a two-decade career (and to make matters worse, he lost out to Kevin Costner of all people).

He spent the next two decades repeating the tricks that, when new, made him such a great filmmaker, with varying success, rarely traveling far beyond his favorite subjects and never attempting something new. Much of the time, he seemed interested in just repeating his past. Then, bizarrely, The Departed (USA/Hong Kong 2006), another one of his exorcises in re-creating Goodfellas (and one of his less successful efforts in so doing at that) finally won him that Oscar.

His next full-length non-documentary, Shutter Island (USA 2010) did not receive the critical praise he was used to but I considered it an excellent film and more importantly a sign that Scorsese was willing to try some new things, venturing into completely different thematic territory, a new subject, and even some new visual techniques. He followed that up with the acclaimed Hugo (USA 2011), an even larger departure from Scorsese’s history that seemed to signal that the Oscar had freed him up to be the great filmmaker he had once been.

Fresh off of two signs that he had finally progressed beyond the demon of Goodfellas losing the Oscar that had stalked him for two decades, I was excited to see what Scorsese did next. However, while The Wolf of Wall Street has received considerable praise, it has also been dogged by complaints that it was a repetition of Scorsese’s past, even drawing direct complaints that it was a retread of Goodfellas again. Unfortunately, the complaints were accurate, and Scorsese’s film was yet another competent-but-repetitious attempt to recreate Goodfellas, leaving me wondering why on earth anyone would watch this instead of just watching the earlier film again.

The point of this film is the ability of capitalism to justify horrible actions. It could easily begin with, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a Wall Street cheat.” It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, a middle class kid who finishes school wanting nothing but to be rich and so heads to Wall Street seeking his fortune as a stockbroker. He learns some of the ins and outs of the business from a disturbing and disgusting successful broker only to see his firm fall apart just as soon as he starts, then adopts the worst elements of that broker in creating a new, illegal stock firm and of course builds an empire of wealth, debauchery, and drugs before the FBI finally brings him down. All along the way, he justifies himself by pointing out the amount of money he has given to down-on-their-luck people needing the help and seeing himself as the more reasonable member of his partnership with Donnie Azoff. He repeatedly claims that his nonstop search for money and drugs is “the American way.”

The plot is a good enough way to make Scorsese’s point, but he is so interested in Belfort’s drug problems and debauchery that he spends fully half of the movie just establishing those elements again and again. He’s so busy showing us Belfort’s amusing attempt to drive himself home while high on Quaaludes that he makes no attempt to connect that scene to his overall point. He is so excited to show us the repeated orgies and various other debaucheries of Belfort’s firm that he doesn’t bother to explain somehow that Belfort’s dissatisfaction with his beautiful, sex-crazed wife is driven by his obsession with money and constant stimulation. It’s as though the film is more interested in pushing the envelope and getting as close as possible to an NC-17 rating than it is in making its point, which is why it ultimately fails.

For most of his more recent work, Scorsese has worked with cinematographer Robert Richardson, but this time he instead turned to Rodrigo Prieto, who has a long history of solid-if-unspectacular work in his past, and it’s difficult even to tell that there is a change. The film uses more of a full color palette throughout than Scorsese’s normal use of washed-out color that becomes more saturated as the film continues, but that is essentially the only difference from Scorsese’s offerings of the last two decades. The film also repeatedly attempts unusual shots to explain to the audience the altered perception of a high person, but they frankly consistently fall flat. Announcing that the Quaaludes are having their effect on a character and then having him move in slow motion just doesn’t do much for appreciating what they do, and makes that trickery completely unnecessary and almost laughable.

The acting is rather uneven, with an excellent lead performance supported by smaller performances that range from good to bad. DiCaprio is the only person who gets a lot to do, and he really knocks it out of the park, portraying his charismatic salesman as he progresses from an eager-to-please ingénue to an arrogant, selfish prick. The transformation he goes through is sudden, not subtle, but it is amazing seeing the ambitious but somewhat reserved young man adopt the mannerisms and activities of his mentor, and he has to portray widely varying emotions throughout. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill, a guy who we’re apparently supposed to think is hilarious while he is doing nothing and great anytime he’s not in a broad-as-can-be comedy (seriously, why have the critics all decided he’s brilliant?) is so bizarre and off-the-wall that it’s difficult to believe him even as an insane drug addict, and seems to have the same look on his face 90% of the time. Matthew McConaughey deserves some credit for an excellent cameo as Belfort’s first Wall Street mentor, a performance that seems more real than many of the supporting roles. Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s seductive wife every bit as greedy as her husband, albeit in a different way, with aplomb, though she doesn’t have too much to do.

As always, Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (I’ve never been clear on who should get the credit.) do a masterful job finding music to suit the film. That ability to use extant music as such a strong cue has long been one of Scorsese’s great strengths, and it was just as present in this film as it famously was in Goodfellas.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a decent film, but it’s really another attempt to retread the ground of Goodfellas that doesn’t do it as well and adds another 40 minutes of sex and nudity. It’s not a terrible way to spend a few hours, but you would be better off just watching Goodfellas again and spending a half-hour reading.

Notes

  • I don’t know about everyone else, but where I grew up, a two-accountant family would not be “middle class.” Nor could “middle class” people afford Belford’s education.
  • It’s interesting that Scorsese comes out with another re-tread of Goodfellas the same year that David O. Russell skewers it.
  • The voice-over was annoying and unnecessary throughout the film. There are times when a voiceover fits well and times when it just gets overused, but this time was one when it could have been cut completely without losing a thing.
  • There were a number of funny moments throughout the movie and some really good dialogue. It was more enjoyable than it was good.
  • Interesting trivia: Robert Richardson, Scorsese’s usual cinematographer, also shot Wall Street (Oliver Stone, USA 1987). I wonder if that fact has something to do with Prieto shooting this one.

Movie Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, USA/France 2013)

The Coen brothers have become some of the most highly-praised and biggest name filmmakers in the world, with their every release greeted with the same fervor that names like Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Woody Allen once received in the past. And, rather shockingly, they have generally lived up to the hype, producing an excellent body of work that includes few true failures, even if they have not always been as good as, say, Barton Fink (USA/UK 1991) or Blood Simple. (USA 1984). Even by the Coens’ lofty standards, Inside Llewyn Davis has been highly praised, so my expectations were high. As has happened a shocking amount of the time this year, the film really lived up to the hype.

This film purports to spend a few days in the life of Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in 1961 who is barely hanging on to the periphery of the Greenwich Village music scene while seemingly everyone around him is finding ways to success. He’s an angry, self-righteous musician, the sort of “artist” whose face turns to a disapproving scowl as soon as an audience is willing to sing along with a song and subsists only on his friends’ largesse. He’s really an archetypical struggling artist, pushing away everyone who tries to help him, insulting the types of acts that people actually enjoy, and ignoring when the future of music is practically sharing the stage with him because he is so enveloped in his own solipsistic world.

And that selfish view of the world is at the center of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that really shares its central point with what David Chase was telling us in The Sopranos: people are (or at least Llewyn Davis is) too selfish, proud, and lazy to change, even when the necessary changes are standing right in front of them.

The details of the plot that unfolds around Llewyn Davis really aren’t important for a film that is so much about character development, with the entire plot really being meant as nothing more than a device to elucidate his character. He was part of a duo with Mike Timlin, who would go on to be a pretty good journeyman major league reliever, until Timlin’s suicide left our irascible central character as a reeling solo act playing traditional folk music in a world that only seems to want sweet group harmonies. He isn’t making it on his own, but his ego won’t permit sublimating himself to a group even when he’s given the opportunity, whether through being a part of the hastily-arranged John Glenn Singers recording a simple novelty song or being asked to join a new trio playing the same kind of music he tries to play on his own. He’s not failing for a lack of talent; he’s failing because the world seemingly doesn’t want an act like him.

Only, the world does want a solo folk act, as the film’s incredible ending tells us. Bob Dylan arrives on stage, reminding us that a solo folk singer was just about to become one of the biggest stars in music history. All of the anger and cynicism Llewyn Davis feels in his life could seemingly, if channeled into original music, turn him into the same kind of star, but he’s too busy trying to keep people from entering his world uninvited to notice. While Dylan is on stage changing the world, he’s getting beaten up in an alley for insulting a poor older woman who had the temerity to play some dull music in front of a drunken Llewyn Davis. (Side note: Davis is actually insulting her because he’s angry to discover that he isn’t alone in getting his friend Jean to have sex with him. Llewyn Davis considers himself to be something special, and the idea that he’s not drives his heckling as much as the music and liquor does.)

The Coens show an excellent grasp of narrative structure, building the entire film as a flashback that we don’t know is a flashback before its Dylan revelation, and more importantly show an excellent focus on their point. Davis is shown again and again to be a man too stuck in a rut and too convinced of his own genius to join the future, and the Coens waste no time in subplots that don’t tell us of that. They also use some of their trademark gallows humor—mostly through their on-screen avatar John Goodman—to tell us that Llewyn only has two possible endings: either he becomes the folk version of drugged- and burned-out jazz musician Roland Turner or he follows his friend Mike by throwing himself off a bridge.

The Coens had to turn to a new cinematographer in Bruno Delbonnel, and it seems that the forced change from Roger Deakins served them well, as Delbonnel provided several striking new looks for the Coens. Given the similarities between them, it would have been tempting for the Coens and Deakins to repeat the sepia-toned look of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (UK/France/USA 2000) for this film, but instead they team with Delbonnel for an interesting combination of looks, ranging from the smoke-filled high-contrast lighting of the clubs Llewyn visits to the cavernous, brightly-lit restaurant where he shares a meal with two traveling jazz musicians in Chicago. And all along the way, we are given visual reminders of Llewyn’s world: the hallways in Greenwich Village are all tiny hallways funneling down to the doorways he wants, forcing him to go where he has always gone, while the restaurant in Chicago is so wide open that his presence is easily lost within it. The Coens and Delbonnel have crafted a special film visually, one that easily surpasses just about anything else in recent memory.

The acting throughout the film is excellent, but the only person with a lot to do is Oscar Isaac, who is spellbinding as Llewyn Davis. Not only is his performance stellar in all of the usual ways and his singing and playing excellent, but the way he infuses Llewyn’s performances with his personality is frankly inspired. Where most singing film parts are praised just on the basis of singing ability, Isaac deserves any plaudits he receives because his performance is fully and completely acting, even though he does prove to be quite an excellent musician. The other standouts are the always-excellent John Goodman, playing the Ghost of Llewyn Davises past as he insults everything Davis plays as inferior to his own style of music and Carey Mulligan (still always Sally Sparrow to me), who turns out to be able to play the angry, selfish-in-her-own-way Jean with a level of realism that she could easily have lacked. Nobody other than Isaac really has a lot to do, but everyone fits well and does what is asked excellently.

And of course the music, supervised by T-Bone Burnett and performed mostly by the actors themselves, is a wonder. There are times when the film loses its way a bit because it is too lost in its music to remember its story, but that’s an understandable mistake to make when you have music this good, and a small mistake in any case. The Coens also made the smart and powerful choice of almost entirely eschewing non-diegetic music, giving us a silence to Llewyn’s non-performing world that befits his feeling about it.

All told, Inside Llewyn Davis is an excellent film. It may be a bit longer than it needs to be because of its fascination with its own music, but it’s excellent in all aspects and undoubtedly worth seeing.

Movie Review: “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA 2012)

A note: I need to polish up the last few “Breaking Bad” reviews, so I sneaked in a couple of others. This one is a repost of a review I wrote on Facebook back when the film first came out.

Paul Thomas Anderson is still probably best known for his film Magnolia (USA 1999), a film with essentially nothing to say that was only watchable at all for Tom Cruise’s performance and Julianne Moore looking like Julianne Moore that captured the public’s imagination because of its ridiculous frog-raining and the simple technique of parallel editing that for some reason convinces the public that films are “deep.” He’s been something of a popular critics’ darling, much the same as Wes Anderson (I always confuse the two of them.) and Ang Lee. Like those directors, he has fared far worse with the more academically-minded critics, but has become highly thought of by the public because of consistent Oscar success anyway.

However, Anderson’s most recent film is supposedly (as far as I know, he is not explicitly denying this, but of course he will not say it) based on L. Ron Hubbard and his founding of the “Church of Scientology.” I couldn’t ignore something like that, especially when he gets such a great pair of lead actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. (The latter of whose career has been distressingly slow to recover from the marketing stunt-gone-bad surrounding I’m Still Here [Casey Affleck, USA 2010], seemingly from people who refuse to believe that it was marketing. That’s just stupid.)

However, while Anderson’s lead character, Lancaster Dodd, is similar to Hubbard, he really isn’t him. This guy is charismatic (Which is a word I would not have suggested fit Philip Seymour Hoffman before, a tribute to his performance.) and, while he definitely shows a propensity toward anger when questioned, he is a calm, reasonable sort of character the rest of the time, except that he is spouting a remarkable amount of nonsense. He’s more the traditional archetype of the cult leader than Hubbard was, which is a bit less interesting.

The lead character is really Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell: a severely scarred war veteran with extreme anger issues who ends up running into Dodd, who takes it as his personal mission to “fix” Freddie’s mental health issues instead of sending Freddie to a professional (however, oddly, none of Hubbard’s famous vitriol at psychology/psychiatry made its way into the film). Phoenix’s performance was really difficult to judge, because he was playing the broken man with some severe physical issues (inability to move one side of his face being the most obvious) that were never explained and he spent the entire film just angry and horny–there wasn’t anything else to him. Needless to say, Dodd’s methods don’t work, which is oddly the entire point of the film.

And that’s where everything really falls apart: the entire point of the film is that Scientology doesn’t fix mental health problems. Really. That’s all Anderson has to say. It’s not impossible to make a film about someone’s inability to change that works extraordinarily well, see In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA 1950), but it doesn’t work when you just show us the same exact scene of the guy breaking down repeatedly and go out of your way to ensure that we have no sympathy for him. However, Anderson doesn’t bother with the depth and nuance of In a Lonely Place. His film is about an angry, horny drunk who spends years following around a cult leader who doesn’t fix him and he shows us Freddie “falling off the wagon,” so to speak, in the same way every time. While there’s certainly a logic to this idea, it’s plain boring.

Visually, the film looks excellent but not original. It was shot in 70 mm (I think that makes it the first film released in the US to be shot in 70 mm since Hamlet [Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA 1996].), which means that it is as sharp and vibrant as films come. However, there’s simply nothing unconventional about it. The only thing that really stood out visually was the very slow editing, appropriate for a story that’s basically about two guys talking over a long period of time.

Hoffman is, as always, fantastic. He makes a much more credible cult leader than Hubbard did in reality. I don’t know what to make of Phoenix. The only other person with significant screen time is Amy Adams, who handles her very simple part well enough but of course doesn’t have to do anything.

Johnny Greenwood’s score is quite excellent, which is not an easy task when it’s stuck trying to make sense of such a dull, repetitive movie with no point.

This was a failure of a film, one that’s getting by on its “scandalous” origins as a film based on Hubbard and a fantastic performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Can we please stop being shocked every time he’s great? Seriously, people keep acting like he’s some sort of new revelation in every role just because he’s not good looking enough to be a major star.) It really isn’t worth watching, which is a shame for a subject that could make a good film.