Friday, January 31, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club


Dallas Buyers Club is the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texas electrician who in the 1980’s became an unlikely advocate for people with HIV and AIDS after his own diagnosis. Woodroof was an early user of the drug AZT, which he obtains by bribing a hospital employee, and so among the first to experience the toxic effects of high doses. After an encounter with an unlicensed doctor (Griffin Dunne) in Mexico, Woodroof begins an elaborate operation to import and sell unapproved HIV drugs from around the world. Once the FDA catches Woodroof at work the movie becomes a procedural, culminating with Woodroof’s unsuccessful attempt to challenge the FDA’s authority in federal court.

The reaction to Dallas Buyers Club has included a discussion about the film’s relationship to the truth of the real Ron Woodroof’s life. Director Jean-Marc Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack have made their Woodroof a heterosexual, irascible, drinking and drugging American cowboy who when we first meet him is openly homophobic, though it seems Woodroof’s sexuality and his attitudes towards gays may have been not have been so clear-cut. There is a clear arc to the film’s Woodroof as a man who overcomes his own bigotry through his work and his friendship with a transgender woman named Rayon (Jared Leto). McConaughey and Leto, both likely to win Oscars, play their roles with a spiky humanity that for a while make the problematic parts of Dallas Buyers Club easy to forget about, but the problems are still there. Matthew McConaughey has been on a hot streak recently and deservedly so, but his performance here deserves the career-best acclaim it’s getting. The scenes of Woodroof jousting with a doctor (Jennifer Garner) and FDA officials are the film’s best moments; McConaughey is terrific at conveying his character’s native intelligence and doesn’t play his affection for Rayon for easy sentiment. I’m the right age to remember Jared Leto from My So-Called Life, but I haven’t paid much attention to him as an actor since then. Leto still has the vulnerability that he made his name on, but he’s a more confident actor now who’s not afraid to play Rayon as person as opposed to a symbol. That’s fortunate because the movie badly, badly wants Rayon to be that symbol.

It’s not only appropriate to set a film about AIDS in middle America, it’s overdue. The subject of the politics and misunderstandings that marred early AIDS research is one that cries out for dramatic treatment, to say nothing of the angry early activism of groups like ACT UP and Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Dallas Buyer’s Club has been in one stage of development or another as a film almost since Ron Woodroof died in 1992, and characters like Rayon were harder to find twenty years ago. That fact doesn’t excuse the script’s conception of the drug-addicted Rayon as existing solely to leaven and eventually overcome Ron’s biases. Rayon is introduced helping Ron get over a leg cramp in the hospital and eventually the two are partners, with Rayon able to go places in the gay community that Ron initially doesn’t want to. Two moments are especially egregious: Rayon, in male clothes, visits his estranged banker father when the Buyers Club needs money. Rayon tells his father he has AIDS and then apologizes. For what, exactly? The single worst scene in the film is Rayon’s speech to the mirror, which brings us perilously close to watching the Mississippi Burning of AIDS movies. The other LGBT characters in Dallas Buyers Club are only portrayed as customers, and most are onscreen less than the straight HIV positive woman with whom Woodroof hooks up in a bathroom. There is a predictable quality to Dallas Buyers Club that, despite the actors’ good work, gives it a safe quality that doesn’t rise to the level of stories that we’re owed about AIDS. As McConaughey and Leto receive their acclaim, it’s important to remember everyone for whom the drugs came too late.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Miller's Crossing



The Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing came out in 1990, when I was 17, and I almost certainly watched it for the first time on a VCR in my parents' living room. Coming back to it over 20 years later reveals a film of unconsidered depths and makes me think about just how much time I've spent watching films I wasn't ready to appreciate. As with many of the earlier Coen films the plot is knotty and the dialogue coded, as if the directors had stumbled upon characters speaking their own language in a place very much like our own. Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is part of a criminal organization run by Leo (Albert Finney) sometime circa the 1930's. Leo is secure in his control until Caspar (Jon Polito) starts making noise about killing a bookie named Bernie (John Turturro) who's talking too much about Caspar's fight fixing. Tom has no taste for killing personally but he understands how getting rid of Bernie will help Leo maintain power. Leo disagrees, and matters aren't helped by the fact that he and Tom are both in love with Bernie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden). The bulk of Miller's Crossing is Tom digging himself out of the hole he's in with Leo. There is an image of Tom's hat on the ground that recurs throughout the film, and the hat figures in a dream that Tom recounts to Verna. Throughout the film our perceptions of characters change; Caspar is a violent boss and a doting father to his son (the Coen's mannered humor doesn't come off here) and both Bernie and Caspar's hit man Eddie (J.E. Freeman) are motivated by love for the same person. (Quiet subversion: a gay love triangle drives the story.) Tom is the one character who's fixed, it just takes him the entire film to realize it. When Tom's hat goes on for the last time then he, and we, know exactly who he is.

Two scenes linger: Bernie, whom Turturro plays with a keen nastiness, pleads for his life when Tom takes him out in the woods to shoot him. The scene is performative on multiple levels. Tom must convince Caspar's men he's a killer while Bernie's bawls to play into Tom's view of him as a "degenerate", weak gay man. Miller's Crossing was the film where I saw Turturro for the first time and he's terrific a man scrambling for his place in a criminal ecosystem. There is a scene earlier on in which Caspar's men attack Leo at his house and, to the strains of "Danny Boy", Leo puts them down. Finney was in good shape he when shot this movie (though his stunt double earns his money too), and while it's a pleasure to watch him dart around with a machine gun the violence also points up the degree to which Leo's reign is about pure force. Those who deride the Coens as soulless stylists are missing a great deal in Miller's Crossing; while the humor is deadpan and the rooms are a little too big this is a dark journey about a tightly closed world where trust is the only currency that matters. Two decades and a few Oscars later, I'd call Miller's Crossing the Coen's first masterpiece.

Monday, January 27, 2014

In A World



Lake Bell's In A World is a sly work of feminism disguised as a Hollywood comedy. Carol Solomon (Bell) is a freelance vocal coach who cadges for whatever work she can get, even if it's helping Eva Longoria learn a Cockney accent. Carol's father Sam (Fred Melamed) is a well-known voice-over artist who's grooming a successor (Ken Marino) for a big movie trailer audition, one which uses the hackneyed "In a world" introduction. A big part of the fun of the movie is spending time with these people. Lake Bell is a beauty with the heart of a great comedienne and Fred Melamed makes a marvelous peacock. There's more to In A World than just jokes at Hollywood's expense though, Carol's sister (Michaela Watkins) is going through a bad patch with her husband (Rob Corddry) and the two sisters reconnect over the realization that the movie business raised them as much as any parent ever did. Carol has a chance for romance with a sweet recording engineer (Demetri Martin), but love is only a sideshow here. The movie ends with a Carol at a professional peak but also aware that she's still a part of the Hollywood machine. What's it all about? Lake Bell's message is a simple but important one. We all need to hear a woman's voice.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Short Term 12



Short Term 12 could very well be the best film you didn't see in 2013. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton's second feature is a sensitive and carefully observed drama that doesn't ape Hollywood fare but if anything goes too far the other way. Grace (Brie Larson, in one of the year's best performances) works in a group home for adolescents where her days are spent chasing down would-be escapees, probing her charges for their feelings, and enforcing an open-door rule on the hallways. Grace's devoted boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) is also her co-worker, and he's more than ready to rise to the occasion when Grace tells him she's pregnant. Cretton has a way with quiet moments; there's a rap performed by a resident (Keith Stanfield) about to age out of the home that's a scene of remarkable intimacy and a new counselor (Rami Malek) who at first appears to be a comical figure gets to prove he belongs in a wordless moment with a young boy. A turning point in the film is the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a teenage girl whose father has the connections to take her out on a weekend pass. The connection between Grace and Jayden is the most schematic part of Short Term 12, with Jayden serving a perfect catalyst for the raising of Grace's long-buried issues. A lesser film might have turned Grace's journey into something mawkish, but Larson's performance is so close the bone that we're invested in making sure Grace is OK before thinking about the not too surprising plot revelations that come in the movie's last third. John Gallagher, Jr. gets to be sensitive to a fault in his role on The Newsroom, but here his confusion at the distance Grace keeps from him has just the right amount of bite. It's both exciting and concerning to see Cretton's next project is a Jennifer Lawrence film. I hope he's able to work on a larger scale without losing his touch, because though Short Term 12 may be a little too psychologically neat it's also a work of very welcome honesty.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Public Affairs Break

Excellent Sean Wilentz piece in The New Republic that takes the beliefs of Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange back to the roots. There's a little too much Ron Paul in here for my (and most people's) comfort. Great reading.
The payoff of the Snowden affair for Putin and the Russians thus far has been substantial. Just as the Kremlin’s human rights reputation, already woeful under Putin, has spiraled downward, it is able to swoop in to rescue an American political outlaw, supposedly persecuted by the Obama administration. The dissident journalist Masha Gessen has observed, “The Russian propaganda machine has not gotten this much mileage out of a U.S. citizen since Angela Davis’s murder trial in 1971.”

Friday, January 17, 2014

August: Osage County



The review of a single film or other work of art can only begin to answer the question of what makes a work “American”, but the question is very much at hand when thinking about Tracey Letts’ family play August: Osage County. The characters based on Letts’ Oklahoma family are dwarfed by the country, the bleakness of their childhoods, and the passing of time itself, but they persevere. What could be more American than that? The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is now a film written by Letts, directed by John Wells, and cast with a mix of stars and recognizable old pros. Letts has changed and opened his play for the screen, but the film shares qualities that I think a good production of the play must possess. John Wells and his cast give the work a deep respect and rumbling anger that ultimately transcend issues with the adaptation and make August: Osage County something that is worth braving the multiplex on a Saturday night.

There isn’t a plot to August: Osage County so much as incident followed by a series of realizations. The incident is the disappearance of Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), an alcoholic writer who has apparently grown tired of his pill-addicted wife Violet (Meryl Streep) and life in the wide Oklahoma country. Violet is the center around which everything else in the film revolves; it’s a role for an actress of great power and Streep makes the most of it with a performance that honors the depth of Letts’ writing. There’s a scene of Violet recounting an old childhood slight to her daughters that is as easy, natural, and moving as anything I’ve ever seen Streep do. What causes some to write off the performance as Oscar bait are in fact problems in the writing. I’m not sure Violet (who takes pills to deal with the pain from mouth cancer) ever really feels like an addict though Streep nails a couple of scenes of drug-addled hysteria. Violet also seems able to kick the pills quickly, allowing the second half of the film to become a flood of confrontations and revelations. Beverly’s disappearance brings the family home to Oklahoma, with Letts paying the most attention to oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts). We haven’t seen Roberts in a little while, and I can report that she has lost of her talent for playing very specific gradations of anger. Barbara, like her mother married to an academic (Ewan McGregor), is furious both at her own circumstances and at the idea that she is the next generation of Violet’s terrifying personality. Streep and Roberts do excellent work together, and after things blow up at the funeral dinner (a marvelous scene of cross-talk smothered by Violet’s neediness) there is a final fight and a leave-taking that feels like a genuine fresh start. These are two of the best performances of the year.

Other characters bounce through the house and get caught in the crossfire. It’s always good to see Juliette Lewis (as Barbara’s sister Karen), but when she and her fiance (Dermot Mulroney) leave abruptly its begs the question of how much we needed them in the first place. I loved the hard-bitten resignation of Julianne Nicholson’s Ivy, the sister who stayed behind, and the sheer vivacity of Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, and Abigail Breslin are also on hand, each making the most of what time Letts and Wells allow them. (Though I’m not sure the character of “Little Charles”, played by Cumberbatch, actually works off the page.) While the stage play takes place entirely in the Weston house the film expands the characters’ world by necessity. Letts adds scenes in a doctor’s office, outside a church, and in a field with mixed results. The scene of Barbara going off on Violet’s prescription-happy doctor is a reminder that despite everything these people are family, while Violet’s run through a field and Barbara’s comeback (“There’s no place to go.”) are far too obvious. Just the simple shots of characters coming and going in cars have their place though, especially seeing Ivy come back again and again when we know how much of her life she’s keeping hidden. Not everything works, but Letts and these actors succeed in putting over the idea that the Westons have each been shaped by forces and events long in their past and by the place that none of them seem able to truly escape. There is more sunlight on screen in August: Osage County than there should be in the stage play, but Tracey Letts’ conception of just what a “home” is remains a powerful dark cloud.

Assayas



My blogfriend has a great list of the year's best films up and though he has seen more than I have I'm very happy to say that he didn't like Blue Jasmine either. He also directs me to this review of his top choice, Something In the Air by Olivier Assayas. I loved Assayas' Summer Hours and so will be seeking this one out. Here are my reviews of Blue Jasmine and Summer Hours.

We're all a geek about something



I put a picture of R.E.M. here for a reason. A good post about the true meaning of the word "geek". (Hypercritical/Kottke)
Anyone trying to purposely erect border fences or demanding to see ID upon entry to the land of Geekdom is missing the point. They have no power over you. Ignore them and dive headfirst into the things that interest you. Soak up every experience. Lose yourself in the pursuit of knowledge. When you finally come up for air, you’ll find that the long road to geekdom no longer stretches out before you. No one can deny you entry. You’re already home.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Envelope Envy



Here's a good roundup of what's interesting about the Oscar nominations today. I join many in feeling the absence of Robert Redford (and the lack of love for All Is Lost in general) and Stories We Tell.
Of all the acting nominations announced, the biggest surprise has to be Jonah Hill for "The Wolf of Wall Street". Through awards season he had received, by far, the least support amongst the critics and major award shows, garnering only nods from the Central Ohio and North Carolina critics. Fellow Supporting Actor nominee Bradley Cooper ("American Hustle") received just a bit more support than Hill, but has done it amongst more notable groups. Despite not a single nomination from any regional critic groups over the long season, Cooper received nods from the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics Association and BAFTA and is now an Oscar nominee for the second year in a row.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"The great American documentary"*



A terrific oral history of Hoop Dreams, 20 years on. (The Dissolve)
I look at Hoop Dreams as we were particularly blessed with incredible families, incredible stories, incredible drama, and a film that seemed to come out at the exact right time about the right topic. The films that I've made since then [Stevie, The Interrupters] were harder to make, and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’m probably never going to make anything that’s ever seen as being as good as Hoop Dreams. I’m really happy when someone comes up and mentions another film I’ve done, but in a way, I’ve never been able to put Hoop Dreams behind me, and I probably never will. At least I have a body of work now, and I don’t feel like I was a one-hit wonder.
*Roger Ebert, 2009

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Music: Johnny Cash & Rosanne Cash - "Tennessee Flat Top Box"



The comments say this took place in 1989; I found it while looking for stuff from Rosanne Cash's new album. A new NYT profile finds Rosanne embracing the past while taking inspiration from new experiences.
At 58, having been married to Leventhal for 18 years, Cash no longer presents herself as having a perpetually broken heart, as she did in her soul-rending 1980s hits like “Seven Year Ache” and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.” She has just released an idiosyncratic new album, “The River and the Thread,” a kind of musical travelogue based on a series of car trips Cash and Leventhal took over the past few years in places like Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. It’s Cash’s dreamscape version of the South, but it’s also a way for her to come to terms with her life as a former country star who now finds herself in midcareer, as much wife, mother and friend as she is the daughter of country-music royalty. Cash doesn’t just have a circle of friends; she has a literal sewing circle, one that includes Gael Towey, who is a former Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia executive, and the New Yorker artist Maira Kalman. The first song on “The River and the Thread” makes an allusion to the sewing she learned from Natalie Chanin, a seamstress and dress designer in Alabama. “In this beautiful Alabama accent, Natalie said, ‘You have to learn to love the thread.’ I just teared up, and this chill went over me. Of course, she wasn’t speaking metaphorically, but I took it that way.”

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Her


Her, the new film from Spike Jonze, is a fascinating muddle. Equal parts smart and simple-minded, this thoroughly original offering from Jonze is inventive when it comments on the false intimacy we find with technology but rather less so when it comes to human relationships. There may no one better suited to play role of Theodore Twombly than Joaquin Phoenix, who once again finds emotion in the nooks and crannies of a screwed-up man. Theodore works for a company that composes personal letters for people, including between family members. In the very near future version of Los Angeles in which Her takes place it seems that letter writing has become a boutique industry, like flannel shirts or catalog popcorn. Theodore’s letters win him praise at work (from Chris Pratt, who plays either a boss or a receptionist), but his personal life doesn’t allow for many expressions of feeling. About to be divorced from Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore finds brief connections online but doesn’t begin to open up until he purchases an artificially intelligent computer operating system named Samantha whose voice sounds exactly like Scarlett Johansson’s. The operating system role was originally to be played by Samantha Morton, and though Johansson is terrific I wonder what Morton’s tartness might have done to the movie. Samantha quickly learns to get through Theodore’s defenses with some gentle teasing, and soon the two are dating and exploring the sexual possibilities that human-OS relationships have to offer.

Several times in Her our attention is directed to people having conversations with their operating systems by means of an earpiece and a small handheld device. It isn’t clear whether Jonze means to say that all of these conversations are personal in nature or if some of them just involve balancing a checkbook or dinner reservations, but the fact that almost no one thinks Theodore’s relationship is unusual is part of Jonze’s design. The only person not impressed is Catherine, who thinks Samantha is an excuse to keep Theodore from emotional intimacy. I wanted more of Rooney Mara, who is seen several times in Theodore’s gauzy memories but only gets to say her piece in this one scalding scene. Catherine’s point is that Theodore is afraid of real emotions and Her really doesn’t do much to contradict her. Theodore is a man terrified of change in women; we’re told that Catherine earned graduate degrees during their marriage and has published a book. As Samantha gains knowledge and experience she too begins to change, and as her gaze turns outward Theodore starts to feel abandoned. There’s a loose message floating around in Her about a connection with the world leading to connection with one’s self, but at a certain point Samantha longs to connect without the filter of Theodore as tour guide. To put it another way: both Catherine and Samantha were always smarter than Theodore and relationships end once they realize it. Theodore does come to some emotional understanding by the end of Her, but of course it comes in a letter and he never has to put anything on the line. Indeed the ending has so little bite because Jonze stages a cop-out, letting Theodore off the hook for hurting anyone.

The only woman in the movie with whom Theodore finds real comfort is Amy (Amy Adams), a game designer who has her own OS friend and is the only woman in Theodore’s life to accept him on his own terms. (Even an encounter with a sexual surrogate played by Portia Doubleday goes badly when Samantha insists on having a physical stand-in.) The privileging of Theodore’s immaturity is the biggest disappointment of Her. Spike Jonze’s talent for world-building has lost none of its power; he shot Her mostly in Los Angeles with a detour to Shanghai and everything from the light to the architecture has a marvelous otherness. Jonze has some strong ideas about the role computers will play in our future, but he seems less interested in the fact that in the future people will still need each other in the same ways they always have.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Explaining Armond



This piece does as good a job as any I've seen in defining what critic Armond White is trying to do, though of course it doesn't excuse his reported behavior or make him sound any more fun to be around. Still, we need our contrarians.
Like Kanye, Armond White poses a threat to this idea of the “Obama effect.” The election, then reelection, of Barack Obama, and the arrival of a film like 12 Years A Slave (if we're to believe that the latter is contingent upon the former) signals the erasure of racial lines only in the sense that they deny the continued existence of such lines. These lines are not being erased. They’re being matted over. As White put it in his review, the film “makes it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad…12 Years A Slave lets them congratulate themselves or ‘being aghast at slavery.’”

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Colin Meloy - "Blues Run The Game"



I discovered this track after seeing Meloy perform it in the Another Day/Another Time film on Showtime, but the song has a long history and its writer had a sad life.

The Book I Read: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer


On a summer night in 1974 a shy girl named Julie Jacobson sits in a teepee at a summer arts camp with a group of new friends who will be part of her life for the next forty years. Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings spins off from that first meeting into being a big, social novel about class, money, friendship, and loss. The key friendships in Julie's life (after her new friends dub her "Jules") are with Ash Wolf and Ethan Figman, two camp friends that she will stay close with even as Ash and Ethan enter a new social sphere thanks to Ethan's creation of a popular animated television series. Wolitzer does a structural thing here which almost backfires but which ends up working. After we're introduced to Jules, Ash, and the others in the 70's Wolitzer gives a brief introduction the camp's benevolent owners and then jumps to that late 2000's and a scene that reveals the jealousy that flows under the friendship between Jules and Ash. The resentment that Jules (who abandons dreams of acting and becomes a therapist) feels towards Ash and Ethan is real, unattractive, and almost fatal to both the friendship and her marriage to a depressive but finally stalwart man. As we jump back and follow the characters from the '70s into the present the memory of this early chapter lingers over the novel and goes to its central question. The title The Interestings refers to a name Jules and her friends give themselves in jest during that first summer, but of course Wolitzer has in mind the question of just what the word interesting really means.

 Are the wealthy Ash and Ethan really the most interesting people in the novel? On the surface perhaps, as their money seems to have no limits and their lives are full of work, philanthropy, and parenting. When Ash and Ethan (who early on is the most physically unattractive of the group) come together as teens their friends are surprised, and by the end of The Interestings we know just how many holes there were in the marriage. Jules and her husband Dennis struggle to get by but they make it make it work, as does their friend Jonah Bay. The son of a famous folk singer, Jonah begins his life as a gay man during the AIDS-ravaged 80's and eventually finds himself overcoming a childhood trauma to reclaim some level of artistic expression. Wolitzer gives us lots of details about the lives of Ash, Ethan, and Ash's brother Goodman, whose disappearance from the group causes a reshuffling of relationships, but we never know them the way we know Jules and Jonah. Ash and Ethan even seem a little horrible at times, always pushing their goodness on people. Finally The Interestings suggests that money pushes people apart and that the bonds forged at summer camp are never as strong as we think. The most interesting thing is always what's next. It's a message that Wolitzer delivers with great specificity and a surprising amount of emotion. I haven't read all the competition but The Interestings deserves its place in the conversation about 2013's best books.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street




There are one or two moments in Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street where Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the whiz kid/con artist behind the Stratton Oakmont brokerage, starts  to explain the details of financial transactions to the audience in narration delivered straight to the camera. Then, with an aw shucks smile, he stops with an acknowledgement that even if we understood we probably wouldn’t care. What we really want to see are the parties.  The Wolf of Wall Street is based on Belfort’s own account of his career on Wall Street, where after getting laid off as a result of the 1987 market crash he learned to convince suckers to invest in penny stocks and started Stratton Oakmont. Belfort and his colleague Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) lived lives of ridiculous excess until Belfort’s eventual indictment and conviction on a host of securities fraud charges. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter are very, very detailed about the behavior that Belfort’s money allowed him to enjoy, and your tolerance for The Wolf of Wall Street will depend upon how much you think the filmmakers are interested in the question of Belfort’s level of awareness of the damage he caused.

The “plot” of The Wolf of Wall Street can be summed up quickly. After Belfort gets a lesson in the ways of Wall Street from broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a glorious cameo) he strikes out on his own out of necessity and then once the feds close in must hide money in Switzerland with the help of his wife’s aunt (Joanna Lumley) and a slimy banker (Jean Dujardin). The rest of the 3-hour running time is filled out with Belfort’s parties, cavorting with hookers, and drug use. There’s a certain way in which The Wolf of Wall Street can be viewed as  continuance of Scorsese’s interest in illicit subcultures, from the Mafia in Goodfellas to The Gangs of New York to most of 1970’s New York City in Taxi Driver. Yet in those films Scorsese and his collaborators took the time to chart an emotional journey, while here he and Winter never crack the surface of Belfort. The only thing that penetrates is Belfort’s need, whether it’s for money, drugs, or sex with his wife (Margot Robbie) or a host of other women. Leonardo DiCaprio is magnetic is the role of Jordan Belfort, all of his charm is at work in the service of a character who’s most selfless gesture is warning a colleague that he’s wearing a wire. Yet when the credits rolled I didn’t understand how the kid who watched Mark Hanna openly snort cocaine in a restaurant turned into the man doing blow off the body parts of women and paying a secretary ten grand to get her head shaved in front of the entire office. Was the real Stratton Oakmont this uniformly committed to excess? Belfort shows no real interest in that secretary or any of the people working under him except for Jonah Hill’s Donnie. As I was walking out of the theater my companion and I wondered if Hill was wearing a prosthetic mouth piece but now I think he may have been wearing a prosthetic body. Hill commits to being weird, sexually ambiguous, and unpleasant and winds up giving the best performance of his career. If only the rest of the movie had cut as deeply.

The Wolf of Wall Street would have been more relevant if it had been released about 3 years ago and reached more people if it had been 40 minutes shorter but it is full of small pleasures. McConaughey gives a bravura performance and there’s a shot of energy every time Rob Reiner shows up as Belfort’s father. Kyle Chandler (as an FBI agent) does a remarkable dance with DiCaprio in his central scene and gets to use his decency in new ways. There are plenty of acting fireworks in The Wolf of Wall Street but also too much deference to the source material. Scorsese and Winter end their film with Belfort on the comeback trail but they should have ended with a bit more evidence of their own presence.