If you thought Martin Scorsese’s new epic The Wolf Of Wall Street was going to be a heavy and serious critique of the excesses of the banking sector in the last few years think again. It’s based on the memoir of the stockbroker Jordan Belfort which came out before the big crash of 2008 and details his working practices, fraudulent activities and jaw-droppingly unrestrained playboy lifestyle in the years of plenty…plenty being a euphemism for industrial-scale misselling of stocks and shares of highly dubious potential.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort as a slick, ambitious and hyper-confident salesman who’s convinced that the world is for his taking as long as he can make his pitch irresistible. As it turned out, he was right: within a few years of starting his career by coldcalling gullible clients with honeyed promises from scuzzy offices converted from garages he was making millions a month, able to afford a mammoth mansion in upstate New York, a yacht the size of a shopping centre and a constant cycle of uproarious parties and sleazy liaisons, fuelled by a regime of illegal stimulants and relaxants. All of this is rendered on screen with gusto and panache, with the scenes set among the coked-up, aggressive dealers on the trading floor barely less feral than the bacchanalian orgies that follow (the dwarf-tossing party actually occurs in the workplace, while trading is open). This film is very much in Scorsese’s comfort zone, and with its tale of the rise and fall of an outsider through a vicious hierarchy of power it’s highly reminiscent of Goodfellas, even down to the cocky voiceover and the freezeframes, and I also recognised the same tone of heightened mania that runs through The Aviator. What it’s lacking, despite all the luxurious trappings, beautiful models and top of the range sportscars, is glamour – DiCaprio and an unexpected cameo from Joanna Lumley aside, all these chancers look and act like slobs. At times it’s a gallery of flab, bad hair, base appetites and self-centredness, with Jonah Hill’s performance as Belfort’s bizarre right-hand man Donny a particularly fascinating study in creepiness. The good times of course can’t last, and the FBI gradually get wind of Belfort’s insider deals and failure to declare mountains of cash, making for a denouement that may be inevitable but is still pretty dramatic, and along the way there are at least half a dozen setpiece confrontations and capers that seem destined to become classics (Belfort’s return home from the country club down the road from his house had me cackling in my seat).
The Wolf Of Wall Street is a riot, three hours of outrageous and reprehensible behaviour that had me gasping, laughing and occasionally even cheering throughout despite the misgivings of my impeccably right-on inner Guardian reader. Politically correct it isn’t but hilarious it most certainly is and there’s just enough self-awareness and punishment for its loathsome lead characters for the viewer not to feel too bad about it.
I was completely blindsided by Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which turned out to be that very rare big budget effects-heavy family film that might actually be worthy of the adjective “magical”. It’s set around one of the main train stations in Paris in about 1930 and is concerned with the fortunes of a plucky and resourceful orphan with a fascination with machinery who has learned how to conceal himself from the authorities within the structure housing the station clock. Hugo has run-ins with the buffoonish station inspector and the forbidding toy stall owner Georges, who is clearly harbouring much sadness and regret, the nature of which seems to be obliquely connected with the intricate clockwork automaton that Hugo has inherited from his father and is trying to get working again. The story starts moving properly once Hugo falls in with Isabelle, another orphan with a much more sheltered upbringing who’s keen to have an adventure with a real outsider.
The environments of the movie are designed and rendered in a precise and heightened style that reminds me a bit of Tim Burton or certain Coen Brothers projects (The Hudsucker Proxy particularly), and there’s liberal use of computer generated effects to help realise the panoramic sweeps through the station and the mighty cogs and pendulums of the clock tower, and while it’s all impressive eye candy I was wondering for the first half of the film why Scorsese of all people had chosen to take it on – this is about as far as you can imagine it’s possible to get from the brutally realistic settings of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It’s only when the back story of one of the characters starts to be revealed that one realises what the main subject of the piece is, at which point Scorsese’s involvement makes perfect sense – without giving too much away, Hugo is actually a deeply personal film and the resonance with its director’s own childhood experiences is where it draws its power from. At exactly the point where most special effects blockbusters would be lapsing into tedious and convoluted chases and threats and false climaxes and over-extended action sequences Hugo lets its gimmicky elements slide and concentrates on one person’s life story, its disappointments and the possibilities for redemption. I was openly weeping in the cinema at one point and believe me, that doesn’t happen often. The film wraps up beautifully, with just enough conflict to provide narrative tension but without crassly reducing the chief antagonist to a cartoon villain, and the epilogue is genuinely moving. Performances are spot-on throughout, with the bulk of the weight being carried by the young Asa Butterfield, whose piercing blue eyes and haunted expression really sell Hugo’s desperation, and Ben Kingsley, who succeeds in preserving the mystery of Georges’s motivations. It’s also really pleasing to see Christopher Lee keep up his tradition of dignified cameos.
Hugo is it would seem something of a triumph, and even the use of 3D seemed appropriate by the end. Amelie meets Cinema Paradiso, and you don’t even need the subtitles on. The best Christmas film I’ve seen in years and with no trees, sledges, reindeers or fat men with white beards anywhere to be seen.
Posted in Film, Review
Tagged Amelie, Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Cinema Paradiso, Hugo, Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Hudsucker Proxy