It's a good hour into The Wolf of Wall Street, following a deep dive into Jordan Belfort's early days in the stock market game — that being the most appropriate word for it — and festive indulgence in the most carnal manifestations of human desire, that we're hit with the title card, "18 months later..." Here, it is solidified that the years we have spent inside Martin Scorsese's world of toxic capitalism have all been, up to this point, set-up. Fuel. This brief flash of text, the longest instance of silence in the cacophonous sewer system that is Belfort's story, is the first real sign that a fire is coming.
By this time, Scorsese's willful defiance of the "show, don't tell" method has introduced us to every one of the doe-eyed crook's countless vices. He has no qualms stealing from those who can't afford it, lying to those who trust him, cheating on his wife, cramming every substance known to modern science into his bloodstream, and wholeheartedly endorsing (to his adoring audience) all of the above. All the while, we bound between delight and disgust. The delight comes not so much in the material victories of Belfort and his cronies — that has the latter effect, in fact, as every antic is so vividly laced with Sodom-level depravity — but in watching them like zoo animals. In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street's principal undoing might be that it is simply too much fun.
For that, we have to thank Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio had managed terrific performances all his career, but this is one of the first in years to actually surprise us. Opening his tale as an ambitious and firm-shouldered young buck, the likes of which you'd find in any Horatio Algers novel, and devolving into the Financial District's answer to Beetlejuice, the actor exhibits corners of his performing ability that we have always dreamed we'd see. In the months leading up to DiCaprio's turn as the dastardly dandy Calvin Candie in last year's Quentin Tarantino picture Django Unchained, fans anticipated an unprecedented kookiness that never seemed to show. Turns out, DiCaprio was saving that mania for Wolf of Wall Street, in which he lambasts justice and judgment in the form of an elastic child at his most tempered and a rabid kangaroo on those nights of the especially hard partying.
And of course, there's that scene with the Quaaludes. Without giving too much away — although the experience is so visceral that all the contextual spoilers wouldn't rob the scene of its emphatic humor — DiCaprio manages a feat of physical comedy so extensive, demanding, and gutterally f**king hilarious that you'll wonder tearfully what might have been had the rising star shirked Titanic for a career in slapstick. But the surplus joys derived from this scene might, in fact, be Wolf's undoing. In a story that is meant to lather on the horrors inherent in the human's propensity for self-serving greed and gluttony, it can soften the blow when we're allowed to take a break from our disgust to spend a few moments in vivid, unabashed delight. Yes, the scene in question involves drug abuse, intoxicated driving, criminal activity, and a near-death experience. But it's so damn funny that we're kept from toppling down into what might have been the darkest crevasse of the film's story and enduring the pathos that might come with it.
The dilution of Wolf's message comes at the hand of its comedy (with no affair a bigger culprit than the one described above) and its tendency to meander. Although Scorsese works to shove the very idea of "excess" down our throats with seemingly endless scenes of Belfort and his pals harassing flight attendants and dehumanizing little people, the ad nauseum effect doesn't always hit home as powerfully as imagined, instead allowing the viewer to fizzle out from time to time through Wolf's three-hour tour. We're drowned, slowly and steadily, in Belfort's tragic pleasures while, as the "18 months later" interstitial suggests, we keep expecting to combust with them.
It's always a risky endeavor for a film or television show to indict crooked characters not through narrative penalties but through a tacit communication of their behavior or psychology as bad news. The risk comes in the form of audiences challenging artists for letting their villains get off scot-free, or even for glorifying undesirable lifestyles. Ultimately, while Belfort does get some semblance of his comeuppance, he wins in his nefarious game. The Belfort we leave at the end of our journey adheres to the tenets he spouts from the beginning, reveling in a legion of former colleagues beaming at him in collective awe and new students of his self-centric theology zealously eating up his every word in hopes of becoming the very same kind of demigod. To Scorsese, and to any an audience member willing to estrange him or herself from the bounties of wicked humor, this is just the fire we were promised. Belfort's image is ignited by the instances of theft, deceit, betrayal, substance abuse, sexual crime, and a spiralling descent into sub-human madness. But there are a few too many laughs along the way to keep the flames from reaching their full, hottest potential.
But hey, when you're complaining about a movie for being too much fun, you've got a pretty good movie on your hands.
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What more could we possibly learn about hitmen? It’s a profession egregiously over-represented on the big screen, considering its microscopic per capita employment level. And it’s a job that most movies, from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to Pulp Fiction to In Bruges, mine for excitement, with the hitman himself as the embodiment of cool. Rarely does the portrayal of paid killers onscreen offer much resembling critical perspective.
That’s what makes Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman so exciting. It actually does offer up perspective, a moral point of view. The Israeli-born director's third feature stars Michael Shannon as the real-life Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer who murdered over 100 people from 1964-1986. At first glance, it may feel like Breaking Bad — the story of an ordinary schlub with a particular set of skills who enters into a criminal enterprise to provide for his family. But unlike Breaking Bad, which has it both ways by encouraging our cathartic identification with Walter White while half-heartedly condemning his crimes (hence why people like Walter more than suffering wife Skyler), The Iceman neither glamorizes nor identifies with its subject. One horrifying moment when Kuklinski’s partner in crime (Chris Evans) suggests that they kill each other’s families, as the cops are closing in, shows how down and dirty, uncool and unfunny, how thoroughly banal both these guys, Kuklinski included, really are. The Iceman is a slightly detached, clinical case-study of pathology, with Michael Shannon’s Kuklinski as its stone-faced test subject.
If it wasn’t already clear that Shannon is one of the finest actors on the planet, based on his towering perforamnces in Revolutionary Road, Shotgun Stories, and Take Shelter, The Iceman will unfog your glasses. Vromen’s film is Shannon’s De Niro-in-Raging Bull moment. He and his director have found a way to translate a true-crime story into a deconstruction of masculinity. The reptilian, tough-guy reserve Kuklinski projects to be taken seriously as a manly man to his wife (Winona Ryder), daughters, and friends — the emotional constipation that’s transformed his face into a craggy mask — aligns perfectly with the job requirements of being a killer: stereotypical masculine gender identity revealed to be akin to sociopathy and conducive to criminality. The most terrifying scene from any movie this year occurs when Kuklinski, in a fit of road rage, chases at high speed after a rude motorist who insulted his wife and daughters….while his wife and daughters are screaming terrified in the car. He’s defending their honor at the same time he’s recklessly endangering them.
Unfortunately, not much else surrounding Shannon in The Iceman is on par with Raging Bull. Instead of Joe Pesci, we have David Schwimmer as a mustachioed thug. Dispiritingly, Ray Liotta, as Kuklinski’s mobster employer, has decided these days to play only one kind of clench-jawed heavy from film-to-film. And Vromen has an affinity for the brown, tan, and orange hues in fashion and interior design of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but doesn’t find any way less clichéd to convey the passage of time than to continually alter Shannon’s facial hair or show the progression of the then still-under-construction World Trade Center towers.
Robert Davi as a pock-marked Don is arrestingly ruthless, however. James Franco leaves an impact as a pornographer Kuklinski forces to pray for deliverance from God, right before killing him. And Winona Ryder, soft, sincere, and incredibly vulnerable has given us her best performance in years. Her beautiful fragility opposite Shannon’s unwavering stolidness is what reveals Vromen’s ambition here to be a damning critique of gender roles and how, to some degree, we all perform them.
What do you think? Tell Christian Blauvelt directly on Twitter @Ctblauvelt and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes !
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