The Wolf of Wall Street

Some kind of fevered masturbatory fantasy rather than something with anything of value to say

Some kind of fevered masturbatory fantasy rather than something with anything of value to say

The greatest opening line to a movie comes from Goodfellas:

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster

It sets the scene, it draws you into the journey of how Henry Hill became a gangster and then how it destroyed him. The opening line to The Wolf of Wall Street might as well be “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be rich”. It’s only a small change but it makes the world of difference. Martin Scorsese seemingly wants to do for Wall Street bankers what he did for the Mafia by filming the story of Jordan Belfort, a self-made Wall Street multi-millionaire who rode the wave all the way to the top and then couldn’t let go, destroying himself in the process. Only he’s not quite as destroyed as many of us might hope.

The film is problematic in many ways, but the first thing to say is that Wolf is a very funny film. Funnier than anything Scorsese has done for some time, and certainly the funniest performance of Di Caprio’s career, including some brilliant physical comedy, something of which I didn’t think him capable. Also, at three hours long, the film does not feel anywhere near as blaoted as one might fear. It rips along at a rare old pace and doesn’t really give you a chance to draw breath. But all of that leads to the however…

However, if Goodfellas is the equivalent of a big fat juicy steak meal (says the vegetarian), something that leaves you full and satisfied, Wolf is something else entirely. It’s full of empty calories. It’ll make you feel sick, it’ll make you fat, it’ll do nothing good for you. Here’s the thing. The film depicts the debauchery that was (is?) common-place amongst Wall Street traders. It is full of sex and drugs and drink and wasted money. It is life turned up not to 11 but 12. It is the thing we (hopefully) would hate to become were we living in a world of unlimited resources.

The better poster. The one that has some art behind it. Less representative of the film though, given it has some art about it.

The better poster. The one that has some art behind it. Less representative of the film though, given it has some art about it.

But the problem is that the film isn’t just depicting these things, it is these things.

The film is packed with nudity but it crosses the line between artistic merit and pornographic excess. Is there a justification for the lengths it goes to? I can’t see one. Likewise, there’s no equality. There’s a difference between portraying misogyny and being misogynistic and The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line into the latter category. The women are treated pretty abysmally throughout and, ultimately, it comes across as leering and masturbatory. At times one can’t help visualising the other side of the camera as a 71 year old man asks a bunch of naked 20-somethings to do his bidding and it’s not exactly comfortable. This may be a representation of the behaviour that carried on with these people but we got that message in the first half hour. The constant repetition is unnecessary – the very definition of pornography, no? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-nudity in films and neither am I anti-pornography per se, but in this context it is unnecessary and uncomfortable. There needs to be some kind of authorial voice or something.

So The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that was enjoyable, though bloated, but the longer you reflect on it the worse it becomes. A leering and seedy exercise that unfortunately bears a resemblance to the worst of Michael Bay’s “fucking the camera” extremes.

D+

Film Length: 2 hours 59 minutes – Feels like: 2 hours 30 minutes

Snitch

Rocks have been more engaging

Rocks have been more engaging

Traffic was a 2001 film by Steven Soderberg about the structure of the illegal drugs trade and the reasons the war on drugs is failing. It looks at the issue on a global scale but also shows the repercussions at a domestic level. Snitch is a middle school attempt to do something similar, if on a slightly smaller scale.

Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) is on the verge of college when his best friend contacts him about receiving a drug shipment through the mail. Jason’s only role would be to receive the package and hand it back to his friend once he’d arrived back in the country. He does not agree but his friend sends it anyway. It’s a set up and Jason is busted. Unless he sets up someone else he’s in line for 10 years in prison and a ruined life.

Jason’s dad, John Matthews, is played by The Rock. Or Dwayne Johnson. Or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I don’t know why. He’s not a great actor but he is a genial screen presence and, ordinarily, he’s a pleasure to watch.

Anyway, with Collins unable or unwilling to rat anyone out to shorten his sentence, his dad approaches Susan Sarandon, who sleepwalks through her role as the DA (or whatever her character is supposed to be), to plead leniency. Sarandon can’t do anything – there’s a mandatory minimum without co-operation – and so Matthews offers to go undercover himself and snag some bad guys.

The first problem is that the trailer sold the movie as an action thriller, but the movie is much more of a slow burn with 90% of the action occurring in the last 20 minutes. In theory, that’s not a problem with the film, it’s just a problem with the way it was sold, but it’s still a problem.

The bigger issue is with the script. It’s heavy-handed and on-the-nose throughout, never missing an opportunity to underline a point and highlight it luminous yellow. The characters are not so much 3 dimensional as, in most cases, 1D. You understand very rapidly the point the film is making but rather than move on, it chooses to make it again and again and again. It’s boring and repetetive and by the time things kick off, rather than relishing them, you want them over so you can get out of there.

D

Length: 1hr 52mins – Feels like: 2hrs 10mins

Side Effects

Side-Effects-Poster

It’s difficult to take Steven Soderbergh seriously when he says that he is retiring from making films. Side Effects is his 10th movie since 2006, an absolutely phenomenal rate of production, and his last 4 films have represented perhaps his most consistent string of films in his career with each of Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects (review spoiler) being excellent films. It’s certainly a string to rival Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven. It’s difficult to see someone who has been making so many films, and films of such a high quality, would be able to just give it up cold turkey. But if he has, Side Effects is another similarly good film and one which sits well within his back catalogue.

As for how good Side Effects actually is, I’m finding it difficult to decide. It’s a film dealing with mental illness that is, itself, a little schizophrenic. As seen in the trailer at the foot of this page, the film is being sold (in the UK at least) as an indictment of Big Pharma – the pharmaceutical industry – with a patient (Rooney Mara) being prescribed a new-to-market anti-depressant, Ablixa, for her depression. The side effects of the drug are causing ever-worsening symptoms which slowly turn her more crazy. This is an interesting and important story, bearing in mind the secrecy that surrounds many drug companies and their clinical trials (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad). However, if you’re looking for answers, you have come to the wrong place (you should really check out Dr Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma).

Now, at around the halfway point the movie changes tack, and I found it just a little jarring. It’s also at this point that you may want to step out as, while the spoilers will be minimal and certainly won’t give the end away, there will be spoilers from here on in… Instead of following the course laid out in the first half, the film becomes a more traditional thriller, recalling Primal Fear (though my memory of that film is hazy). I’ve heard it suggested that the change is subtle and you slowly come to the realisation of what the story has done, but I was very aware that it was moving away from its starting point. But that doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing.

I admit that I felt some pangs of disappointment when I realised what was going on but I’m not sure that’s entirely the film’s fault, what with the advertising campaign raising expectations in a certain direction. Would my interpretation of the opening half have been different if I didn’t think the film was heading in a specific direction? It’s difficult to say and as such, I don’t want to punish the film for that. In fact, it’s difficult to know how the film should have been marketed. If you go in believing it to be the kind of thriller it turns into, perhaps the plot will unravel, become obvious. What should be said is that it is a good film. It’s very well made and, more specifically, very well acted. Jude Law, no longer the heart-throb he was 10 years ago, is adapting to playing some great character roles, of which this is one, while Rooney Mara is proving herself to be a brilliant young talent with a performance which truly announces her skills and range.

Ultimately, Side Effects is a film that will keep you engaged (and entertained) throughout and is well worth a watch, even if it doesn’t quite attain the heights that it at times promises.