The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Just a few short weeks ago, director David O. Russell brought us American Hustle, a sexy, cool, and confident look at a bunch of leisure-suited misfits trying to obtain the good life in the amber glow of the late 1970s. Fast-forward the clocks to the late 1980s and enter legendary director Martin Scorsese with his equally sexy, cool, and confident The Wolf of Wall Street, another comical tale about a money-hungry American who will do whatever it takes to live in the lap of luxury, even if that means breaking the law to do it. At an epic three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is a slap of energetic entertainment that finds Scorsese at his absolute raunchiest, using the true story of Jordan Belfort as his road map through sex, drugs, and, well, even more sex and drugs. The ringleader at the center of this sleazy circus is Leonardo DiCaprio, who sinks his teeth into the role of Belfort with ravenous comedic fury and an Oscar statute burning in his twinkling eyes. DiCaprio has never seemed hungrier for the award, which makes the word “Wolf” in the title very fitting. While this may be DiCaprio’s show, coming up hot on his heels is Jonah Hill, who delivers another surprising performance as Belfort’s business partner, Donnie Azoff.
The Wolf of Wall Street picks up in 1987 and introduces us to young Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who has just been hired in as an intern at a firm run by Mark Hana (played by Matthew McConaughey). Hana takes an immediate liking to the up-and-coming Belfort, so he decides to take him under his wing and recommend that Belfort embrace a lifestyle of sex and drugs to get him through the workday. Things seem to be going smoothly under Hana, but Belfort ends up on the street after the firm closes in the wake of Black Monday. Determined to find another job, Belfort, with the help of his young wife, Teresa (played by Cristin Milioti), finds a job at Investor Center, a hole-in-the-wall business that specializes in pink slip stocks. Belfort quickly excels with this new company, making a small fortune that allows him to buy a flashy sports car and live comfortably. One day, Belfort is approached by Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), an owl-eyed salesman who is curious about what Belfort does for a living. The two strike up a fast friendship and together, they decide to open their own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which rakes in millions by using Belfort’s aggressive business tactics. The employees of Stratton Oakmont begin to embrace Belfort’s wild lifestyle, which is dominated with sex, drugs, and wild office parties, all of which catch the attention of Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent convinced that Belfort is up to no good. Belfort is able to keep the FBI off his back for a while, but when he starts laundering money from the company to pay for his lavish lifestyle, Denham closes in and threatens to bring down Belfort and his merry inner circle.
The Wolf of Wall Street’s main focus is Belfort’s insatiable hunger for wealth and luxury, two things he obtains very quickly. Yet Scorsese explores Belfort’s excessive lifestyle in a comical light, making it seem almost cartoonish as marching bands parade through his office, hookers sprint topless through the cubicles, businessmen snort up cocaine like vacuum cleaners, and sex parties suddenly erupt in the bathroom. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Belfort starts his career on an honest note, refusing to sip martinis and do cocaine with Hana while the two dine on a four-star lunch that overlooks New York City. Yet you can see that Belfort is intrigued by all the flesh and powder dangled in front of him. He resists it at first, acknowledging it with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders, but after sticking a crack pipe in his mouth, he is sent into overdrive and the endless shower of money makes it impossible for him to control his debauchery. When the parties get bigger, the drugs gets stronger, the women get prettier, and the behavior gets even more reckless, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes absolutely revolting and hilarious in equal measures. One of the more shocking moments comes when the employees of Stratton Oakmont gather at a beachfront mansion for a gonzo party that culminates with a drugged and drooling Azoff coming up with the idea to approach up-and-coming show designer Steve Madden about allowing the company to sell shares of his company’s stock, Belfort meeting the beautiful Naomi Lapaglia (played by Margot Robbie), and the belligerent Azoff pleasuring himself to the gorgeous Naomi in front of the entire party. It’s unruly and downright hilarious in its extremity, showing off just how monstrous money and power can make people.
As Belfort, DiCaprio becomes a party animal that would make Jay Gatsby blush. Once he snorts that little white line, pops the Quaalude, and downs a glass of wine, he becomes a wrecking ball that just can’t be stopped. Naturally, he develops a drinking and drug problem, at one point proclaiming that he refuses to die sober while aboard a smashing and crashing yacht. He’s wildly materialistic, chuckling at the suggestion that some of the dishes aboard his overdone yacht may get smashed in a particularly bump journey. When he isn’t busy destroying his Lamborghini, he is preoccupied with flying his helicopter home from a hookers-and-cocaine binge that results in him almost crashing the chopper into his home. When the FBI begins breathing down his neck, he contemplates bowing out of his company to avoid prison time, but in the heat of the moment, he just can’t say no to making even more money, something that he already has more than enough of. His destructive and disgusting behavior is egged on by his employees, who look at him like a pin-stripped god that has taken them all to millionaire heaven. Yet through it all, you can’t help but sort of like Belfort, even if he is a brash show-off who won’t listen to anyone. DiCaprio makes him a beam of charisma, even when he is dry humping a stewardess, laughing in the face of the law, or slithering his way out of the local country club in a daze.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, Hill never shies away from the ad-libbed humor that he has become known for. He lobs zingers as the equally excessive Azoff, a foul-mouthed salesman who is married to his cousin and who likes to party just as much as Belfort. McConaughey continues his hot streak as Hana, a fast-talking broker who demands martinis brought to him in rapid succession and who recommends that Belfort embrace a destructive lifestyle of sex and drugs to survive Wall Street. Robbie fogs up the screen as the beautiful Naomi, a goddess who loves money and nose candy just as much as Belfort does. Chandler is bullish and straightforward as Denham, the FBI agent who is convinced that Belfort may not be as squeaky clean as he likes to pretend to be. The secondary players consist of P.J. Byrne as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, another close friend of Belfort who proudly wears an atrocious headpiece. The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal stops by as Brad Bodnick, a juiced-up drug dealer who helps Belfort sneak cash into a Swiss bank account. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin turns up as Jean-Jacques Saurel, a Swiss banker who flashes false grins at the desperate Belfort. Rob Reiner gives a snappy performance as Max Belfort, Jordan’s father who tries to keep the boys of Stratton Oakmont in check. In smaller roles, Jon Favreau stops by as Manny Riskin, a seedy lawyer hired to keep Jordan out of prison, and even filmmaker Spike Jonez pokes in as Dwayne, the geeky Investor Center manager who hires Belfort.
In true Scorsese form, The Wolf of Wall Street is a snazzy piece of filmmaking that tickles your peepers with hilarious slow-motion shots, characters talking directly to the audience, and wicked narration from Mr. DiCaprio. Given that the film clocks in at nearly three hours, you’d assume that there may be one or two places where the picture is dragging its feet, but the endless scenes of wild parties never loose their bite, humor, or their entertainment value. You just can’t wait to see what grandiose act Belfort commits next. Scorsese also keeps each and every scene as stylized as possible, making the entire experience go by in a flash. Overall, while it may not be quite as sharp as American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street is still a raunchy examination of a man who had everything but still demanded more, more, more. You’ll find yourself buzzed by the racy script from Terence Winter, elated performances from DiCaprio and Hill, and a stinging sense of black humor that keeps you in stitches even when it threatens to cross the line into the inappropriate. The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, shiny Christmas gift from one of the greatest American directors alive.
The Artist (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After its sweep at the Golden Globes, the silent French film The Artist finally received a wide theatrical release. With all the hoopla and chatter about how wonderful this film is, I braved a snowstorm with two of my buddies who were intrigued by a silent film but were conflicted on the idea of seeing one. So is it worth the hype? Yes, The Artist is a testament to our imagination and is a vivacious spectacle without explosions. It’s comical, touching, smooth, and cute with two leads who have classic Hollywood movie star stamped all over them. To be fair, it is a intrepid move on the part of the filmmaker and the studio to take a risk on this film, mostly because American audiences wouldn’t give it the time of day. Yes, it is silent and yes, you have to pay attention to the screen or else you will get lost. That means you have to slide your phone back into your pocket, pause the Angry Birds, and ignore that text for an hour and forty minutes.
The Artist picks up in 1927 with amiable silent film star George Valentin (Played by Jean Dujardin), who proudly wears a pencil-thin mustache, greased back hair, and bops around with his dog costar, at the height of cinematic fame. As he departs the premier of his new film, A Russian Affair, photographers swarm Valentin and in the hysterics, he bumps into a strikingly beautiful woman named Peppy Miller (Played by Bérénice Bejo). She plants a big kiss on Valentin’s cheek, igniting a swarm of speculation in the papers: “Who’s That Girl?” Peppy uses her tabloid fame to get a job as a back-up dancer for a movie studio where she slowly climbs the ladder of celebrity. While in production on another film, studio boss Al Zimmer (Played by John Goodman) approaches Valentin and tells him he has something to show him. Zimmer introduces Valentin to a new kind of film—the talkie! Valentin waves the talkie off as just a fad that will never catch on, but as the years pass, Valentin watches as audiences embrace the new approach to this medium. As a result, Valentin’s fame and fortune slowly fades away, leaving him a broken man. Peppy, on the other hand, finds herself rapidly rising as the new “It” girl in Hollywood.
The film tells a timeless tale, one we are all accustomed with—a story of swallowing one’s pride, adjusting to the new times, and reluctance to accept change. Yet director Michel Hazanavicius tells it with a fresh visual approach, making us forget we have heard this story before. I would say that The Artist turns itself into an event film, yes, like Avatar or Grindhouse, because it dares to show us something we do not go to the movies and see every week. Sure, it doesn’t feature blue aliens or go-go dancers with machine guns for legs, but it does transport us to the early years of cinema, much like Grindhouse took us back to the rundown movie palaces of the 1970’s and Avatar felt ripped from the distant future. It is not satisfied with simply evoking, much like the other nostalgic films of 2011 were. It is a blockbuster of romanticized imagery. I found myself wishing that I would have worn a three piece suit and the theater would have been filled with cigarette smoke.
The Artist features some dazzling physical performances from both Dujardin and Bejo, both sweeping us up with the batting of an eyebrow and a smile. Dujardin is so damn magnetic that I can’t wait to see what he does after this film. While he flashes pearly smiles and looks cool strutting in a tux, he is capable of dramatic emotional lows. We feel for him as his marriage and career unravels even if we are saying, ‘Told ya so” in the back of our minds. Dujardin really sparkles when he breaks into a tap dance or performs slapstick with his four-legged companion. Bejo blazes up the screen with her bouncy sexuality and old Hollywood glamour. She is classy even when she is haughty, an imagine she embraces even if she is aware that it isn’t her true character. When the two share a scene, they have unlimited chemistry that Hazanavicius is fully aware of. A tap dance sequence at the end of the film left me wishing for a musical sequel that would feature George and Peppy together again. Goodman as the studio boss is right on the money. It was strange not hearing his gruff voice but even silent and chomping on a cigar, he is just as scene stealing.
Don’t worry if you feel like a fish out of water when The Artist first rolls onto the screen. It will take you a minute to adjust to it but when you do, you will forget that it is silent. Ludovic Bource’s old-fashioned score is a standout, as the music was the punctuation to the stories being told in silent films. The real beauty of The Artist comes from the message it sends to the audience. Film doesn’t need sound or flashy set pieces to send a profound statement and sometimes minimalism can stir up the strongest emotions in any given individual. The most important aspect of any work of art is the love, care, and attention the artist gives to their work and their willingness to stand by it. The Artist is bursting with Hazanavicius’ love, care, and attention in every single frame, which is why this film wins us over. It speaks a universal language without saying anything at all.