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Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena

In my annual quest to see al the Best Picture nominees, I recently completed my task with opposite ends of the spectrum, the low-key, character-driven comedy-drama Philomena and the sprawling bacchanalia of The Wolf of Wall Street.

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3-hour examination of greed, sex, drugs, and capitalism on speed.  It traces the (based on a true story) rise of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he builds an empire that swindles everyday Americans.  By far the best part of this movie for me was DiCaprio's performance.  He is the loosest, most magnetic, and most committed to his role I've seen him in a very long time, at least since his great performance in The Departed.  He's able to show us the charm and magnetism that Belfort has, and he must have had quite a bit to accomplish all the dirt that he did.  Scorsese also directs the film at a swift pace, with many memorable scenes (many involving quaaludes) that top one another in how far Jordan and his companions will go in their search for greed and pleasure.  Jonah Hill is also quite funny as Belfort's second in command and hanger-on.  I also loved the small roles of Jean DuJardin (The Artist) as a Swiss banker, Matthew McConaughey as a Wall Street mentor, and Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as an upright and resentful FBI agent.

It's a magnetic and audacious movie, and yet at the end I mostly felt exhausted, which is admittedly perhaps Scorsese's point.  What bothered me a bit more, though, was that while there's a fair amount
of plot development in the movie, there's a lack of character development.  Things happen to Jordan, but his character doesn't really change significantly after the first 15 minutes of the movie. I simultaneously wanted more of Belfort's character and 45 minutes cut off the running time.  The online film community has been pretty stuck on an American Hustle vs. Wolf of Wall Street debate.  While I think both films have huge merits and significant drawbacks, one place Hustle wins by a landslide is by including female characters that have their own inner life, and don't simply exist to react to those around them.  The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely worth seeing, and you will be entertained, but it has an inner shell of hollowness that isn't found in Scorsese's best work.

Grade: B


The last of this year's Best Picture nominees is Philomena, a gentle drama starring the always accomplished Judi Dench.  She plays the title character, a working-class woman who was forced to give her child up as a teenage mother in Ireland.  The true story traces her journey to find the son she gave up, aided by a saracastic, out-of-work journalist, played by Steve Coogan.  The movie isn't particularly cinematic, but it's well-written (by Coogan) and very well-acted by Dench and Coogan. This very sad true story would have been easy to turn this into a melodrama.  There are certainly moments of intense emotion, but they're surrounded by a movie that also has its share of chuckles as the two very different characters interact on their journey.   I enjoyed Philomena, but it's a decidedly modest movie to wear the "Best Picture nominee" title.  It's the kind of crowd-pleasing movie you can definitely see with multiple generations of your family, provided they don't hold too high of an opinion of the history of the Catholic church.

Grade: B

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