Merry Christmas everyone! The end of the year movie goodness continues with at least one of this week’s movies. Facing off this holiday are two wildly diverse movies. We have Martin Scorsese’s latest pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street and Ben Stiller’s first directorial venture since 2008’s Tropic Thunder. One of these movies is already a critical darling, while the other has received decidedly mixed reviews. Will either one be getting your Christmas money? Or will you see The Hobbit again?
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
For years I have been waiting for Ben Stiller to return to his talented roots and work on worthwhile projects again. Instead, he wastes his credibility on recent throwaway flicks like The Watch or Tower Heist. Stiller is better than his resume, but his roles require so little of him.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the story of a man who holds an outdated position in an outdated industry. For nearly 20 years, he has developed negatives to be made ready for print in LIFE magazine. He hasn’t accomplished much in life, nor does he ever want to. The biggest accomplishment in a typical day for Walter is to send his coworker (Kristen Wiig) a “wink” on eHarmony. He spends the majority of his hum-drum life daydreaming of heroic pursuits and feats of strength.
Walter suddenly has to face possible unemployment as LIFE magazine is transitioning to an online-only publication. He is given the weighty task of developing the cover for the final LIFE magazine. Unfortunately, the macguffin slide is missing and he goes on a globe-trotting journey to find the nomad photographer (Sean Penn) who sent him the photo.
I would warn anyone who plans to see this movie to forget the trailer completely. The trailer, while not quite misleading, makes the movie out to be more fun than it is. There is plenty of adventure to be had, but it’s not the music-montage-based epicness you are expecting.
For a movie that bases itself on daydreams, it revels in subtlety. You are never quite sure when Walter is experiencing a fantasy or if he is truly living out an adventure. That’s the biggest problem with this movie. Walter is an unreliable narrator and you question every single scene, even when the majority of the movie is based in reality. I would have almost rather been told when fantasies ended and where the reality began.
Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun movie. The excitement comes with every new locale Walter visits. The landscapes are beautiful and essentially become characterized.
I have no issue at saying this is Ben Stiller’s best work in 20 years. He isn’t playing Mitty for laughs. He is an average, harmless guy who would rather stay under the radar, if at all possible. Wiig’s character gets a character arc of her own. She and Walter are evenly matched, but he knows that, based on her eHarmony profile, she prefers a man of courage. Through the events of the movie, Mitty becomes that man. However, it becomes a personal journey rather than a progression for anyone else.
The plotline regarding Todd (Patton Oswalt), the eHarmony rep, is completely unnecessary. Every time he calls Walter, it drags down the movie and makes it unbelievable. Apparently you get great phone reception while on Everest. I wish they had cut Oswalt’s character completely.
When this movie ended, I immediately liked it, but couldn’t love it. I enjoyed the experience, but it was missing a spark. Since then, however, it has become one of those movies that I have thought about frequently and one that has become better days after. I enjoyed the message of a man who relies on daydreams but is able to curb them once he gets out of his comfort zone and lives his life.
Walter Mitty is an easy watch. It won’t change your life, but it’s a step in the right direction for Ben Stiller. Worth seeing.
The Wolf of Wall Street
This movie marks the 5th pairing of Dicaprio and Scorsese. These two men work very well together. It’s probably the reason that they have a Depp/Burton type of relationship. Does this movie work out for the best like The Departed and Shutter Island or is it just so-so like The Aviator and Gangs of New York?
DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a once bright-eyed stock trader looking to find success on Wall Street. Just as his short career is on the rise, Wall Street crumbles on Black Monday in 1987. He starts anew, selling penny stocks and eventually creates his own investment firm. In the height of his career, he gains riches by selling fraudulent stocks. He lives the life of luxury and excess. What goes up must also come down as Belfort dives into a drug-addled tailspin. The FBI, led by Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), starts investigating him and just waits for Belfort to make one mistake so they can bring his entire corrupt company down.
It should be no surprise that Leonardo DiCaprio is amazing as Belfort. His natural charisma grabs hold of every character he meets. You clearly believe that he deserves (in a twisted way) every dirty dollar he has earned. The first section of this movie details his strategy and shows the cult of sales, ala Boiler Room. I’ve always been fascinated at how slimy, yet frenzied salesman can get in that type of competitive slaughterhouse. Every single one of Belfort’s employees revere him as a god because of his success and inability to take no for an answer.
Without spoiling the end, I will say that the final few minutes are very indicative of how corporate felons are treated in the justice system and the public’s acceptance of them after the fact. There are so many clever things in The Wolf of Wall Street.
It’s just a shame that the movie is a bloated, sloppy mess.
The original cut of this Scorsese flick was over 4 hours and garnered an NC-17 rating. After some much involuntary cutting, Scorsese decided the movie was tight at 3 hours and got it down to an R-rating. The supposed edits boggle my mind. How could you purposely cut a movie to be audience friendly and still keep unnecessary scenes and extraneous characters filling a lengthy three hours?
The problem with Wolf of Wall Street is excess. Not only is the movie excessively long, it also feels like this is Scorsese’s first movie. That hurts to say. I am a fan. However, his approach feels like that of a new filmmaker with some clever ideas but surrounds them in redundancy, fluff and garbage. It is hardly an overstatement to say that drugs are used in nearly every scene. Also, the level of nudity is hardly excusable. Obviously, Scorsese is trying to show us just how insane the life of a Wall Street millionaire can be. He accomplishes that by hitting you over the head with it. He could have easily gone for an introduction to the lascivious lifestyle of the smooth-talking trader by showing one or two parties that Belfort attends and perhaps a scene or two of drug use. But why bother showing over 3 dozen different circumstances where we have to watch Belfort snort cocaine again and again. This is what I’m talking about in regards to editing. His wild lifestyle could have been shown early on in the movie and then his later behavior would have inferred that he was still a drug addict.
There was just so little style in Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio does talk to the audience via 4th wall, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. During one of the 90 scenes where Jonah Hill is high on Quaaludes, Belfort invites the audience to see what kind of effect the drug has on someone. Instead of a fun trip, we just see Jonah Hill (with big teeth) move in slow motion. It felt like film student unoriginality.
The movie starts to pick up as the FBI starts investigating Belfort, but that plots jumps in and out of the movie. The conversation between Belfort and Agent Denham is one of the best scenes in the movie. Sadly, you have to sit through 90 minutes to get there.
In the end, The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a well-acted, poorly directed dramatization of a “Dateline: White Collar Criminals” special. If Scorsese showed some restraint and cut this movie down to 110 minutes, this would be a tight, irreverent, fun commentary on the 1%. Instead, this movie will only test your patience.
I can’t recommend this movie to anyone except for Scorsese die-hards. This is a critical favorite, but feels like more of a misfire. Skip this one old sport.