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The Wolf of Wall Street: Scorsese's experiment in excess hits, misses and shocks

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The Wolf of Wall Street

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No doubt you have seen a number of TV spots this holiday season for Martin Scorsese’s latest film “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The Golden Globes labeled it a comedy and Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, heck, even Rob Reiner star in the film. All of this may have intrigued you, but none of it can prepare you for what “Wolf of Wall Street” truly is.

A three-hour dive into excess and debauchery the like that hasn’t played at your local cinema in a long time, if ever. It is not for the faint of heart, and those that have seen it have a responsibility to prepare the uninitiated, but even then the full effect cannot be known without witnessing it for yourself. Having said that, it is a surprising exercise of Scorsese’s talent with a career best performance from DiCaprio, even if the movie itself is unable to live up the benchmarks set by those two.

The movie is based on the real life of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who lived a life of greed and excess that makes Gordon Gekko look like George Bailey if even a tenth of the film’s exploits are accurate. That is the name of the game in this darkly comedic look onto Wall Street – excess. The drugs, the sex, the swearing, and last but not least the greed.

The movie earns a questionable R rating, with the controversial NC-17 – which it almost did land – more accurate. Mountains of cocaine and other drugs of all varieties, numerous scenes of unabashed nudity, and language that would make a sailor blush are used to shock the audience into humor, but just as easily will cause audiences to be appalled. While many will not likely find it as offensive as others – I have to include myself in this category -- by the end any shock value fades away as it all creates a numbness to these deplorable acts, defeating the intended purpose of eliciting humor from them.

Scorsese’s point showing all of it with a three hour run time was to highlight the excessive nature of Belfort’s character. And those three hours only show a fraction of the things he did in the years he ran his company. The time goes quickly enough, but the movie is not at its best with this length. Scenes are shown in full that could have been condensed and combined and would have had the same effect, perhaps even better going at break-neck speed, accentuating the idea of how these people lived their lives. The great moments seemed outweighed by ones that drag on too much.

Still, it is very difficult to call “Wolf” a bad movie, because it’s not; it’s just not a great movie. That’s a hard pill to swallow considering Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but the film’s lack as a whole doesn’t take away that even at the age of 71 Scorsese takes bold risks and is always up for something new. Comparison’s to “Goodfellas” will likely be made, and not totally unfounded, but the director has adapted his style to hit not only the story. If you didn’t know this was a Scorsese film before sitting down to watch it, you’d probably assume it was from some hotshot twenty-something. This old dog keeps learning new tricks. Maybe not his best but its entertaining and encouraging to see him trying new things.

The best thing about “Wolf” though are the performances, chief among them Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a career best performance. What makes this a fantastic turn from DiCaprio is because he is entirely unhinged. People have compared the actor’s collaborations with Scorsese to the director’s work with Robert De Niro, but until now we have never gotten a performance that could rival De Niro in “Taxi Driver” or “Raging Bull.” DiCaprio drops the perfect leading man quality that has become a staple and is simply bonkers; it is something that you just can’t take your eyes off of.

Supporting performances are also great, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie especially. Hill is also crazy, but him and DiCaprio have such a fantastic chemistry. Robbie is the breakout of the film. Unbelievably sexy, it could have been easy for her to just have been eye candy, but she channels Lorraine Bracco’s performance in “Goodfellas,” but with even more spine and her own strong will to oppose DiCaprio’s Belfort. Matthew McConaughey is solid in his brief work, and Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent is a high mark for the actor even with limited screen time.

Despite “Hugo,” ironically his last film before “Wolf,” Scorsese films have never qualified as family friendly, but this is a whole other level. It is the anti-holiday film of the year. Those who label it a masterpiece or one of the year’s best are probably more distracted by the gluttony of the world depicted to see its faults, and those who would call it filth have a hard time seeing past that to find its merits, but both are there in equal quality as “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a solid film but missing some pieces that would make it whole.

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