Holiday Movie Review Roundup

This Christmas season, Hollywood seems especially concerned with one primary aspect of the holiday: consumerism. Several recently released films are about money; how much American society needs it as well as how much that same consumer society destroys and corrupts good and bad alike. During a time of year obsessed with consumerism, it’s an important theme. They’re also about dreams, both those that are broken and those that are occasionally fulfilled. I checked out a few new movies receiving major critical and awards attention.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour effigy to excess. Scorsese teams up once again with Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a fireball of a performance as Jordan Belfort, the real-life sleaze ball broker who made millions by scamming people out of money by selling them phony stocks. Along the way, he enlists the help of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a few select others in their attempt to grow their phony company, Stratton Oakmont, into a legitimate operation.

The film’s early scenes are fascinating, as a bright-eyed Belfort with ambition and ideals is enthralled by a Wall Street veteran (a brief but brilliant Matthew McConaughey) and begins to build his phony firm from the ground up. The process behind the operation is the most interesting part of the movie.

Belfort and company’s rise to the top (and descent to the depths of debauchery) is chronicled in increasingly graphic displays of rampant sex and drug use. It’s fun for a while, and some over-the-top scenes rank among the funniest in Scorsese history (one particularly brilliant, almost vaudevillian sequence involves Belfort’s overdose on Quaalude, his drug of choice). But the movie wears out its welcome by the end. So much screen time is devoted to the film’s ribald sexual content that most attempts at lasting character development fall flat. By the time the narrative switches gears by throwing in an FBI agent (an underused Kyle Chandler) hot on the scent to bust Stratton, it’s much too late to rein in the film’s overstuffed ambition.

Then there’s Belfort, a completely horrible person from beginning to end. Are we actually supposed to be rooting for this guy? Scorsese has made a career out of depicting despicable yet fascinating characters, but Belfort takes things a bit too far. DiCaprio plays him much too charming to actively root against, either. Azoff and the supporting characters don’t fare any better; everyone is thoroughly unredeemable. Much talk has been made over whether the film is misogynistic, and I think the criticisms are justified. There are lots of naked women in this movie, and, while Belfort’s model wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) gets ample screen time, she’s mostly just there as a sex object, too. It’s a shocking misstep from a director who has a history of very strong female characters.

Of course, some may argue that these things make sense when viewed through Belfort’s eyes, an unreliable narrator who often breaks the fourth wall to talk directly (and down) to the audience. But just because the film hews to Belfort’s real-life story doesn’t imbue it with meaning. The film’s ultimate letdown is that it doesn’t bother to make us care for these sick characters or say anything new. It’s certainly outrageous that one of the foundations of our economy could be manipulated like this, but “money corrupts people” isn’t exactly a novel concept.

Wolf is an occasionally brilliant movie, but I can’t help but think that this is Scorsese’s version of a frat boy comedy. DiCaprio is certainly deserving of high praise; he seems to be completely enraptured in his insane performance; if the man doesn’t get an Oscar for this one, I’m not sure he ever will. The movie itself is an enthralling, often hilarious portrait of a director at his most gloriously unhinged, but those looking for a bit more depth beneath the madness will very likely feel bludgeoned and numbed by Scorsese’s raucous, slick con job.

 American Hustle

David O Russell channels his own inner Scorsese in American Hustle, a brilliant caper film that begs comparison to Goodfellas, among others. It’s the kind of film Scorsese used to make, a smoldering mix of memorable characters, a twisty plot and the distinct voice of a true American original.

Loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late ‘70s (the opening states that “some of this stuff actually happened,”) the film follows the exploits of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, with what is described as an “elaborate” comb over), a professional New Jersey con man who, along with his girlfriend, Sydney (a sweltering Amy Adams) is pulled into an FBI sting operation led by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). The goal is to implicate multiple Jersey politicians in taking bribe money under the banner of restoring the once-glorious Atlantic City.

Things are complicated both by Irving’s vindictive wife Rosalyn (a manic-depressive Jennifer Lawrence) and his friendship with naive politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who DiMaso asks Irving to implicate in the sting.

Hustle pulses with the urgency surrounding a high-stakes plot that could unravel at any moment. And, between con over con and Irving’s complex love triangle, the film threatens to unravel, too. But it doesn’t. Director O’Russell is such an exhilarating director, swooping the camera in every imaginable and lending the movie a vibrant, breakneck pace. O Russell proves himself once again as a brilliant writer, too. Despite the machinations of the plot, the film is ultimately a deep character study, a look at survival and the role the characters’ duplicitous natures contributes to their working-class ennui. In particular, the relationship between Irving, Sydney and Rosalyn is handled with aplomb, and grows even more engaging as the film continues.

The acting is off-the-charts great, with Bale, Adams, Lawrence and Cooper all pulling in AAA performances. Brilliant supporting work from Louis C.K. as a bumbling FBI agent and Robert DeNiro as a mobster (what else) rounds out the powerhouse package. O Russell’s attention to period detail (particularly the costumes and that glorious hair) lend the film an authentic vibe where it could have easily felt fabricated. His use of popular period music is equally exciting (and again, quite Scorsese-an).

Hustle has its flaws, but it’s so hard not to fall in love with, because it’s a movie in the purest sense of the word. A sheer joy for the art and craft of filmmaking permeates its pores. If he wasn’t already, David O Russell is now one of the most consistently surprising and accomplished directors in the business.

 Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks couldn’t be any more different. British author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) seems entirely uninterested in money. She calls it a “dirty word,” but profits from her successful Mary Poppins books have dwindled, and she decides to humor Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who invites her to come to California in an attempt to convince her to sign over the rights to her story to make into the now-classic film.

Mr. Banks is the kind of film I instinctively enjoy, a movie about the movies that takes no small amount of joy in the artistic process. The ideological warfare between the stuffy and picky Travers (who insists she be called Mrs. Travers) and the wide-eyed, uncouth Disney (who insists he be called “Walt”) is engaging, but the real draw comes from the fact that these two impossible dreamers seem almost wholly unconcerned with money, but rather with seeing their dreams come to life. Of course, Walt Disney was a money machine, but its corrupting influence is, refreshingly, wholly absent here.

The movie tells Travers’ story by flashing back and forth from her traumatic childhood experience with her alcoholic father to her battles with Walt and company. The chronologically disjointed formula occasionally feels a bit manipulative, and many of the historical connections feel more concerned with cinematic indulgence than historical accuracy. But this is a movie of grand emotions, and it wears its heart very much on its sleeve.

Director John Lee Hancock gets great performances out of side characters such as the Poppins songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and BJ Novak) and Travers’ chauffer (a typically pitch-perfect Paul Giamatti). Thompson is brilliant as Travers, giving just the right amount of sugar to a rather bitter role. She’s never so nasty that she becomes unbelievable. While Hanks doesn’t exactly look the part, he brings a warmth and sincerity to Walt Disney that is just too infectious to ignore.

The film is a big dollop of Disney sugar, but Travers’ backstory and her stubbornness offers just the right amount of dramatic heft to balance things out. It’s a completely engaging, refreshingly cynicism-free look at dreamers who may, for once, actually be able to make their dreams reality.