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"THE WOLF OF WALL STREET"
(2013) (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: A 1990s era stock broker builds his investment firm to wild success, but must contend with his own decadence, raging ego, and a federal agent who's determined to bring him down.
PLOT:
It's the 1980s and Jordan Belfort (LEONARD DiCAPRIO) is a Wall Street broker who's learned a thing or two about trading as well as the perks of the business from his boss and mentor, Mark Hanna (MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY). But then the market crashes, Hanna's firm closes shop, and Jordan finds himself unemployed and needing to support himself and his wife, Teresa (CRISTIN MILIOTI).

He finds that chance selling penny stocks for a small investment house and quickly uses his previously honed skills to build up his success. Along with his new and eager-to-be-rich associate, Donnie Azoff (JONAH HILL), he then starts his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, and proceeds to hire a bunch of drug pushers, such as Brad (JON BERNTHAL), as his new sales staff.

It's not long before he's wildly successful, parlaying their success of selling to small time investors over into going after the rich and conning them into buying what are otherwise nearly worthless penny stocks that will never amount to anything. With his success going to his head, and becoming a drug addict alongside Donnie, Jordan dumps Teresa for the younger Naomi Lapaglia (MARGOT ROBBIE), and even hires his own father, Max (ROB REINER), to come work at his ever-growing firm known for its unorthodox style and extravagant parties.

That success eventually draws the attention of the feds, with Agent Denham (KYLE CHANDLER) beginning his investigation of Jordan and his firm. But fueled by his wealth, the drugs he takes and a raging ego, Jordan believes he's above the law. From that point on, it's a question of whether he'll be able to stay one step ahead of the feds, including by getting creative with his wealth.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The beauty of so-called cautionary tales is that, well, they can get readers, listeners and/or viewers to pay heed to some sort of looming danger or at least a pitfall associated with any number of behaviors they might be engaged in or thinking about, all wrapped up in some sort of entertaining storytelling package.

Granted, some of those come off as just plain goofy, such as the 1936 anti marijuana film, "Reefer Madness," while others can be a bit grisly, especially if they fall into the slasher sub-genre of the horror film world (typically where teens get a graphic comeuppance for drinking, casual sex and so on). But others can get people thinking and really drive home the point, such as occurred in "A Clockwork Orange" where the conditioning out of the old ultra-violence backfired in unexpected ways.

Interestingly enough, the star of that film, Malcolm McDowell, also appeared as the title character in the 1979 film "Caligula." While the pic is a mess, not to mention quite vile, it could also be viewed as a cautionary tale about the perils of ego and excess, especially in relation to the title character, the most infamous of Roman emperors.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Leonard DiCaprio has publically stated that he wanted to channel such Caligulan elements in his latest work, "The Wolf of Wall Street." In that film, his gazillionth pairing with the legendary Martin Scorsese behind the camera, Leo plays real life stock swindler Jordan Belfort who enjoyed the extravagant spoils of defrauding others to the tune of something around $200 million back in the 1990s.

Indicted in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering, Belfort served time in prison and wrote two memoirs, "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Catching the Wolf of Wall Street," with DiCaprio winning a bidding war with Brad Pitt over rights to the first work. It's hard to say how the eventual film might have turned out had Pitt gotten his hands on it, but in keeping with its real-life figure and Roman emperor predecessor, the film ends up being excessive while in the act of depicting excessiveness.

While that might be the point that Leo, Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter are trying to make, the film clocks in at just a smidge under three hours, features more than 500 "f" words, and has lots of over-the-top drug use, several orgies and more fully nude women than one might see this side of a porn film. And this is the edited version (!) that had more such excess trimmed to avoid receiving the dreaded NC-17 rating and taking an entire day to watch.

It's also characteristically all Scorsese, bearing many of the filmmaker's usual trademarks, such as voice-over narration, flashbacks, lots of tunes on the soundtrack and plenty of directorial flourishes. While his diehard fans might enjoy that typical material, it came off a bit repetitive to yours truly, and now feels superseded by David O. Russell borrowing much of that for the far better and a bit more constrained "American Hustle."

Somewhat interesting is the trajectory all involved decided to use with the protagonist. While the characters who appear in cautionary tales don't necessarily need to change within such stories to make them effective, such transformation certainly helps. And growth is also what makes the character's journey all the more interesting and usually engaging.

For example, while the Gordon Gekko character didn't abandon his "greed is good" mantra in "Wall Street," his young protégé (played by Charlie Sheen) clearly did. Bud Fox came in somewhat naive but determined, got seduced by the system, and finally saw the error of his ways and tried to do something about it.

With that in mind, you half expect the same might happen with DiCaprio's character. When we first meet Belfort, he's already in full-blown decadent mode, throwing small people onto Velcro boards at an office party and then snorting drugs from a woman's bare derriere. But then Scorsese and Winter rewind the tale to show the protagonist in early neophyte mode, as a young Wall Street broker who gets an ear and eyeful from his mentor (an excellent Matthew McConaughey who unfortunately disappears after his extended cameo).

It's not long after learning the tricks of the trade that he has to reinvent himself following the market crash of Black Monday. But with the seeds of decadence already planted, it doesn't take long for them to sprout and over-grow the place for next three hours. Along the way he picks up a right-hand man (Jonah Hill) who helps build the business along with his dependency on new drugs; dumps one wife (Cristin Milioti) for another (Margot Robbie); and eventually draws the attention of a fed (Kyle Chandler) who wants to bring him down.

I'll readily admits that there are flashes of brilliance scattered throughout the production, including a drug-induced bit that's hilariously disturbing and ends with a bit of peculiar homage to none other than Popeye. DiCaprio is quite good in the role (not surprising considering this marks his 5th time working with Scorsese) and Winter gives him some terrific speeches and other powerhouse moments.

Yet, while I appreciate all of that as well as the underlying cautionary tale aspects, I found the film going too far in making the protagonist too cool and fun to watch, thus negating some of those "be careful" thematic moments. And with far too long of a running time and an excessive amount of R and sometimes X-rated material, it somewhat ends up emulating that which it's supposed to be satirizing and pointing fingers at.

I can't say I was ever bored (how could I be with counting over 600 expletives and numerous instance of nudity, depravity and such), but I just wish all involved showed a little more restraint with the overall offering. While I'm sure it will have supporters proclaiming it to be the next great film, I only found it good and wished it were 30 to 40 minutes shorter and thus more to the point. "The Wolf of Wall Street" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed December 6, 2013 / Posted December 25, 2013


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