Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: 'Wolf' trusts the audience to see moral bankruptcy for what it is

BY MAX ASAYESH-BROWN

St. Petersburg High

'Tis not the season for a dramatic and serious commentary on the exploits of white collar criminals, so do not buy a ticket to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street expecting that. In truth, it's about that speed, but replace "dramatic" and "serious" with "hysterical" and "boundlessly obscene." (This is the movie that laughs in the face of Pulp Fictions f-bomb record, almost doubling it.) The commentary is still there, but Wolf doesn't do the work for you.

Front and center is Leonardo DiCaprio, as ruthless real-life Wall Street stockbroker Jordan Belfort, and in yet another collaboration with Scorsese — a dynamic duo still at the height of its power. It's a career-triumph that matches The Departed, with essentially zero overlap. Riding shotgun is Jonah Hill, combining the crude comedic traits of Superbad-type movies that got his career rolling with the intelligence of a master filmmaker.

Hill stars as Donnie Azoff in a sprawling event of unnecessary length that centers on Stratton Oakmont, a firm whose constituents make their millions peddling penny stocks to wealthy customers. A twist on the classic Robin Hood tale — Belfort, Azoff and almost equally sleazy coworkers take from the rich to give to themselves. That is, until the ground shrinks beneath their feet and they descend into lives of crime and drug addiction.

Added to the equation is Kyle Chandler's cool and collected FBI agent, in less of a game of cat-and-mouse than of a cat sitting patiently outside the mouse hole while the mouse snorts cocaine off the bodies of prostitutes inside. The potential of that story line is replaced instead with more nudity, more drugs, more scenes of DiCaprio sporting a lit candle placed where it doesn't belong. Moreover, women are used only as sexual props, with the exception of Margot Robbie, the closest thing Belfort sees to comeuppance.

For a movie of such draining length, Sopranos screenwriter Terence Winter prioritized nude scenes to the point of redundancy ahead of story lines that might, for instance, give Chandler more to do, though he nonetheless makes a powerful performance of what he's given. Regardless of its comedic value (the funniest scene 2013 offered), a solid 20 minutes of the drooling, 'luded out DiCaprio attempting to scramble to his sports car says more about Belfort's moral bankruptcy than a monologue describing the hierarchy of prostitutes does.

Wolf often lacks in the actions-have-consequences department, perhaps a casualty of the occasional adherence to the story of the real Belfort, who served a mere 22 months in federal prison coupled with a restitution order of north of $110 million, without any obvious repercussions for his love affairs with cocaine and Quaaludes. But it just about works for the film — it's without a moral voice because it doesn't need one. What some will say are cases of Scorsese and crew romanticizing sexism and drug use are simply obvious displays of contemptible behavior. They give the audience two and two and let them make four.

It is enough to see DiCaprio shout "I can't f---ing die sober!" at Hill, an attempt to berate him into retrieving a fistful of 'ludes from the flooded base of a yacht under the threat of a 30-foot wave. The reckoning of the wolves takes the form of despicable actions the audience won't have a hard time deciding are just that.

With an interesting story hidden behind an exhausting script, the comedic and sometimes dramatic gold supplied by Hill and DiCaprio along with Scorsese's directorial mastery make the film an ordeal with the ability to entertain.

Rating: 4 out of 5 asterisks

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