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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We all know Adolf Hitler did not die as a result of an organized assassination plot against him but this fact does not hinder the enjoyment of watching how that attempt by members of his own Nazi command plays out. Reminiscent of great ‘60s WWII conspiracy thrillers such as 36 Hours and Night of the Generals this film centers on the actions of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) a loyal German officer who nevertheless is horrified by what he sees Hitler doing to his country and is determined to find a way to stop him. In 1942 he tries to persuade senior commanders to overthrow Hitler and later in 1943 while recovering from combat injuries he joins the German Resistance a secretive anti-Hitler group comprised of several men in the highest ranks on the inside. Using Hitler’s own contingency plan labeled Operation Valkyrie to prop up the government should he die this group puts their assassination and take over plan in motion. As the eye patch-wearing SS colonel Tom Cruise is excellent. He comfortably manages to get to the heart of Stauffenberg and portray a man who clearly loves his country and feels it’s a patriotic duty to stop the madness. Wisely Cruise (who produced through his United Artists studio) surrounds himself with actors of the first stripe. Among those supporting the mission are: Kenneth Branagh in a relatively brief turn as an German officer; Bill Nighy as one of von Stauffenberg’s closest allies in the venture; and Eddie Izzard as a communications specialist charged with cutting Hitler’s contact to the rest of Germany. There’s also superb work from Terence Stamp as another high-ranking conspirator and the always great Tom Wilkinson as career officer Fredrick Fromm who seems to be playing all sides despite appearing to be a stern supporter of the Fuhrer. And as Stauffenberg’s loyal wife Carice van Houten (Black Book) looks lovely and hits just the right notes as her husband’s sounding board. Although he has guided big popcorn pictures such as Superman Returns and X-Mens director Bryan Singer has also given us intense thrillers like the Oscar winning Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil. So the command he shows in turning out this nifty thriller should come as no surprise. Clearly Singer knows how to grab hold of an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats -- no easy trick here since the outcome is never in doubt. He keeps this going like a speeding train ratcheting up the suspense at every turn and focusing his camera directly into the eyes and sweat of these courageous conspirators. Valkyrie is a pulse-pounding heart-racing excitement from start to finish.
What No Reservations needs is a smell-sensitive rat who can cook. Instead we get head chef Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones) a perfectionist who runs the kitchen of a swanky Manhattan eatery with an iron fist. Let’s just say she’s in desperate need of an attitude adjustment so in pops new sous-chef Nick (Aaron Eckhart) a free-spirited fellow who cooks by the seat of his pants. Soon he’s got the whole kitchen staff laughing and loving him way more than Kate. Nick tries to charm Kate too but she won’t have any of it. To top it off Kate unexpectedly becomes the guardian of her 9 year-old niece Zoe (Abigail Breslin) after her sister dies in a car accident. The understandably distraught Zoe is having a tough time and won’t eat any of her aunt’s highfalutin cuisine. The little girl only likes fish sticks—and as it turns out spaghetti a Nick specialty. Yes Nick finally melts Kate’s heart when he gets Zoe to eat a hearty bowl of spaghetti. You can see where this is going right? Love—and tomato sauce—conquers all. When you have two incredibly attractive people onscreen together you want the sparks to fly. Think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. True those two were falling in love for real but still it makes for a more fulfilling and cinematically romantic experience. But alas it doesn’t always work out and in No Reservations’ case the love story between Zeta-Jones and Eckhart deflates like a fallen soufflé. On their own they each hold up well: Zeta-Jones is good at being steely but emotionally stunted when it comes to matters of the heart while Eckhart’s easy-going charm and great smile make his Nick an obvious choice for any woman. Get them together however and things sag like a wet noodle. Too bad. Breslin is her usual cute self playing it a little more somber than she did in Little Miss Sunshine but the little actress ought to be careful not to pigeon-hole herself into the “eccentric but affecting” kid role. No Reservations also has another knock against it: It’s a remake of the German film Mostly Martha a far more stellar—and original—effort. Natch. Turning a hit foreign film into a studio picture rarely works out; something always gets missed in the translation which for No Reservations is surprising since Mostly Martha writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck is listed as the co-writer. What Nettelbeck did with Mostly Martha is revolve her story around master chef Martha (played brilliantly by Martina Gedeck) and her quirks and anxieties over suddenly having to raise a child. The love story with the Italian chef is more a pleasant surprise than the driving force. But of course with No Reservations the romance is played up for that certain chick flick appeal with two people who have no chemistry. Maybe Nettelbeck was lured into Americanizing her original. For his part director Scott Hicks (Shine) is definitely capable enough to carve out what he can from this predictable set up even adding some flair to the kitchen scenes but he can’t quite push No Reservations past its banality.