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"Mitty" lacks courage, "Wolf" is an operatic, nasty satire

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Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” adapted from a two-page 1939 short story from James Thurber about an ordinary guy who has fantastic daydreams, starts out lighthearted and wistful before devolving into hollow travelogues that lack the sense of adventure found in his fantasy life. The movie then becomes a weary, self-serious message film about—of all things—earning your beard.

Mitty (Stiller) has worked at “Life” magazine in the negative assets photo department for 16 years. As the magazine begins to undergo its inevitable downsizing to an online publication only (which happened for real in 2007), he becomes responsible for the last cover photo of its print edition. The new hotshot thirtysomething bosses who are doing all the firing (Adam Scott chief among them) have ridiculous beards. They’re jerks. They look like teenagers wearing Halloween costumes, and the beards reinforce their lack of experience and moral authority, despite their position of power.

As Stiller digs into a very forced mystery about the missing cover photo, he develops a natural rapport with Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the co-worker he tried to friend on eHarmony.com. Moments in his real life become jumping off points for his fantasies, and he musters the courage he lacks to quell his enemies: In one scene he surfs the pavement in Manhattan in an effort to defeat his bearded boss.

But as soon as Walter leaves New York to go on his “real” adventure, the movie becomes series of easy-cheat montages that lack the conviction of the movie’s message. The helicopter landscape shots of Greenland and Afghanistan are aesthetically pleasing in the same way a tourism board commercial might be, but Mitty’s escapades get increasingly less specific and interesting.

Of course we all know where this is heading—into a Papa John’s commercial.

Wha? Believe it or not, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” actually does sport some of the most blatant product placement of the year, but guess what Walter grows on his overseas adventure? A beard—and not a fake-looking, obnoxious young-guy beard, but some lightly trimmed stubble that looks oh so handsome on his newly experienced face.

This is just an example of the way “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” cheats its audience. It fast-forwards past a ton of struggle and conflict to get its character to a heroic place, and after the CGI-heavy daydream scenes, the real-life scenes just lose their luster.

If there’s one thing “The Wolf of Wall Street” doesn’t lack, its courage. There isn’t a movie in recent memory that I’ve seen (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” included) with this much nonstop debauchery from its awful, awful main characters.

Director Martin Scorsese uses all of his formidable cinematic prowess to create the most unlikely and outrageous comedy of the year—a three-hour operatic orgy that indicts the modern version of the American dream more savagely than ever.

The lustful, greedy heart of post-Woodstock, pre-Watergate America was exposed in Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fueled, mournful masterpiece “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” already feels like its modern equivalent, even if it is set in the 1990s.

Based on the memoir of convicted stock defrauder and money launderer Jordan Belfort, “The Wolf of Wall Street” has a go-for-broke mentality that mirrors the addictions of its sociopathic main characters. As a fascinating portrait of ego and denial, the movie makes a nice companion piece to two of this year’s best movies, “Spring Breakers” and “The Act of Killing.” Ironically, the tones of these three films couldn’t be more different.

Leonardo DiCaprio is at his dynamic best as Belfort, a man who lives in his own hedonistic reality—dulling his sense of responsibility and moral direction with nonstop sex, alcohol, and Quaaludes. Lunch with his first Wall Street boss (a scene-stealing Matthew McConaughey) has him wondering how much of this cocky attitude is a joke, but as soon as he discovers a “pump and dump” penny stock scheme, he takes that attitude to a surreal level.

In one of the funniest scenes of the film, DiCaprio singlehandedly redefines—and hopefully puts to rest—the “Braveheart”-style rallying cry scene that’s become the standard for all action films. In another, he proves that he’s got more than a little prowess in the physical comedy arena, anchoring a ‘lude overdose scene with moves that would raise the hair on Jim Carrey’s neck.

Scorsese keeps up the manic pace of Belfort’s lifestyle for three hours, with long tracking shots, whip-pans, freeze frames, inner dialogue, and DiCaprio both narrating and speaking directly to the camera. You name a cinematic technique, Scorsese uses it here. It’s impossible not to relent to its hallucinatory style, and you may begin to feel a little under the influence yourself.

If you want a movie that examines the intricacies of stock fraud, look elsewhere. DiCaprio starts to explain what Belfort and his fellow miscreants were doing, but then stops suddenly with something to the effect of: “Who am I kidding? You don’t care.” It’s a risky move; insulting the audience directly, and it illustrates perfectly Belfort’s disregard for the “little people.” (And although you’ve seen the dwarf-tossing scene in the previews, I’m actually not even referring to that. That's a whole different level of disrespect.)

No one character embodies the freakish nature of the movie better than Donnie (Jonah Hill), Jordan’s WASP-y lapdog, an amalgamation of several real-life people. Aside from being flat-out hilarious, he embodies the sycophantic behavior of everyone who followed Jordan into the inferno and encouraged the madness to continue.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a cynical, nasty satire about human beings regressing to infantile levels. I would love for it to be the final, insane word on indecent power-hungry Wall Street behavior, but you and I both know that probably won’t be the case, so trust me, it’s OK to laugh. What else are we going to do?

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