The Wolf of Wall Street

OK, I’m not drinking the Kool Aid on this one. It was basically three hours of material that you would put in a trailer and almost no story telling at all. I know that Martin Scorsese is one of our greatest living directors but he needs to be called out the same way that people are willing to call out Spielberg when he plays the same notes over and over again. This is not a movie that has anything to say and it hits no emotional points except tedium and disgust.  I can’t say it is vile because the movie does not really advocate a viewpoint, but it would be easy to see how people watching this would have the same reaction as the stockbrokers who saw the Forbes article that shared the title of this film. Where do I sign up?

The movie “Wall Street” had a clearer condemnation of the excesses of greed and capitalism, this movie is simply an excuse to showcase those excesses. How many times is it necessary to see Leonardo DiCaprio pop a pill, snort cocaine up his nose or end up drooling on the floor? If your answer is less than a half dozen times, be prepared to be bored, because that sequence of events is repeated every twenty minutes in this three hour tour of late eighties/early nineties barbarism. The fact that he is often accompanied by Jonah Hill as a dweebish partner in crime should make it even less necessary to repeat the events over and over. We get it. Ladle on some nudity, including a shot of what I hope was a prosthetic Jonah Hill penis, and you begin to imagine the lengths to which this movie will go to show us the depravity of this wolf-pack. What might have been missing was any sense of the consequences to anyone other that the lead character in the schemes being played out here. I did not care much for “Blue Jasmine” earlier this year but it is an intellectual and moral giant of a film com,pared to this load of thunder signifying nothing.

Jordan Belfort heads a company designed to separate people from their money regardless of whether the investment has any merit. In fact he seems to prefer that the stocks that he peddles are so high risk because that will absolve him of blame for a lack of return by any of his customers. DiCaprio tears into the role with gusto but the part is so under written that he comes across as a stick figure of bellicose ambition. Just as there are too many sequences of debauchery; from dwarf tossing to gang bangs to gleeful fraud on a party line, there are way too many speeches. This my friends comes from a speech teacher. Belfort gets on the microphone in front of his troops almost as often as he snorts cocaine. What should come over as lunatic inspirational messaging for the sales people in the boiler room operation disguised as an investment firm, seems tired and redundant. Emotional high points can’t be high if everything is delivered at the same pitch. The one time it worked in the film was in the moment that Belfort reneges on his S.E.C. agreement. He drops the hyperbole for a few seconds to make a real emotional connection with one of his employees and then dramatically returns to the hyper stylized tone he uses for most of the picture.

There is no character arc in the story. Everyone starts out as a greedy bastard and everyone end up as a greedy bastard. No one is enlightened or changed as a result of the events that take place in the time span of the movie. Some of those events make an interesting anecdote but they do not make a compelling story and when strung together for three hours they make a tedious film. I can understand why there was talk of moving this film to the early part of the next year, it needs some firm pruning and a story editor who can make some sense out of what Scorsese has shot. I think that a decision was made that the salacious nature of the film subject and the name of Martin Scorsese would be satisfactory at  bringing in film fans and there are enough critical apologists that the movie would get some awards consideration. I frankly saw DiCaprio better in a two minute scene in “The Great Gatsby” than in the whole of this film.

The kinetic energy of the filming and editing can’t turn the excesses into anything other than a teaser trailer for a movie that lasts three hours. If you watch the first teaser for the film, you get everything there is in the movie. Add a few more F-bombs and a lot of nudity and drug use and there you have what so many people are claiming is a great film. It takes a lot of talented people to make a movie and the technical aspects of this film are excellent. There are some good short pieces of acting work that are quality based but they are in aid of something meaningless. The vision of the director is ultimately responsible for how the film is supposed to come across to the audience. The director here seems to be blinded by his vision of decadence, much the same way as he was by the style of film in “New York, New York”. A vision can’t just be the images, it needs to be emotions and insight, two things lacking in this film.  Art is subjective, so some will find this artful, I just found it loud, crass and not very entertaining.

Philomena

This a a film to stir your blood if you have any sense of injustice. Regardless of your faith or political leanings, the history of harsh treatment of pregnant young women in Ireland in the first half of the last century is not a happy one. Whether it was the horror show projected by “the Magdalene Sisters” ( a film that has received much criticism for it’s accuracy) or the more mundane heartlessness of the abbey shown in this film, it does appear that strict moral adhesion to a philosophy was emotionally cruel. This film is actually a pretty sad story despite the humor that is highlighted in the trailer above. There are moments of levity but at it’s heart, the film concerns the indifference of a couple of institutions to the people that they serve.

The first of those institutions are the convents that took in women abandoned by their families and then misused them. I have not done enough research to know if this is just typical Catholic bashing or if this was standard operating procedure. I do believe that the film shows a strength of faith by the title character that would be hard to preserve if there was not a foundation of goodness somewhere. From a more modern perspective, unwed pregnant women are not something to be hidden away and their children taken from them. From a perspective of the times, it might seem that the children were given treatment in their best interest and that the expectation that the women would simply accept the results was normal. What is not normal is the desire to cover up past sins when relevant information is deliberately withheld. I watched and was unhappy when the children were taken, but I did not see that as an act of evil. Later in the story, when we discover that at least some officials in the hierarchy deliberately withheld information from parents and children, the shroud of evil is draped on those characters. The way the story is revealed in the film seems to be dramatically effective, regardless whether it is accurate or not.

The second institution that is criticized here is the world of journalism. The author of the book that the film is based on is portrayed as the lead character of the film. The screenwriters have not been shy about displaying his flaws as a human being. As an outcast from the privileged class of journalists at the high levels of government, he seems to have disdain for the idea of a human interest story and for anyone who would be interested in reading one. The pompous fall back of writing Russian history after a fall from grace might make him seem less of a failure from the class that he sees himself in, but it was clear that the rest of the world had little use for it. The nice part of the story is that he is forced to recognize that there is worth in the stories of others who are not czars, commissars, or members of an oligarchy.

Judi Dench is marvelous as the elderly woman seeking her lost child. She conveys a rueful manner at those times that the imagined image of her child  appears in her mind. She is also a peppy retired nurse with simple enthusiasms and a warm human nature. I know people who speak to the employees of a restaurant or hotel and make friendly conversation. They sound very much like the chipper Philomena Lee does in those sequences in Washington D.C.Where the misanthropic and jaded journalist sees a person of pitiful or limited imagination, most of us would see a warm hearted soul, willing to share something of herself and learn something from others. Although it is not the journey that will get the most attention, the story of the journalist is just as significant to the film as that of the mother trying to find the lost child from her past.

Steve Coogan plays the writer Martin Sixsmith and he does a good job of reflecting his conflicted loyalties to his journalistic roots and the feelings of his newly acquired friend Philomena Lee. The flashback sequences to the 1950s Irish Convent feel authentic in tone and they certainly look like they might have been filmed at a location where time has stood still. The film is well made and tells the story efficiently, although it does tend to take a couple of political shots, those are largely minor sucker punches that anyone could expect from the authors point of view. There are elements of the final resolution with the adopted sister and the long time lover that I thought needed to be expanded upon, but on the whole it was a rewarding experience for the acting talents and the sad set of stories that make up the whole purpose of the film.