Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street, Grudge Match

Grudge Match
The Wolf of Wall Street

About 10% of the time, I struggle with a movie’s star rating.

It’s either 1.5 or 2, say, or 3 or 3.5. Most of those times, I give the higher rating, probably because I tend to feel worse looking back on the films I feel I’ve underrated than overrated. In hindsight, I probably should have given “21 Jump Street” 2 stars, not 1.5; and as much as I wanted to point friends to “The Savages” and “Total Recall,” upon reflection, 3 stars feels more accurate than 3.5. (It wouldn’t be fair to go back and change some grades and not others.) Such is the case with two very different Christmas releases this year, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the Sylvester Stallone/Robert De Niro sports comedy “Grudge Match,” both of which sit on the cusp between 1.5 and 2 stars.

Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker told an interviewer that she and Marty trimmed an hour off the original print but couldn’t find another frame to cut. I’m sorry, but that’s just hubris. If they had to shorten it by half to get into heaven, not only could they, but it would be twice as good. As is, it’s three hours of men behaving badly, as searing an indictment of financial industry avarice as the yellowing front page of a newspaper from the Reagan administration. There are some funny individual scenes but no real way into the story for us poor saps in the audience.

If you’ve seen the preview, you know the arc of Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) rise from Wall Street wannabe to the king of penny stocks carrying insanely high sales commissions for his self-made Stratton Oakmont investment brokerage. I was amazed how few surprises Scorsese (directing a script by Belfort and Terence Winter) threw in. Jordan’s first wife (Cristin Milioti) says the things first wives say. After he arrives, his blonde-bombshell second wife (Margot Robbie) does the things blonde-bombshell second wives do. The buddies he brings with him from the outhouse to the penthouse (Jonah Hill, Kenneth Choi, P.J. Byrne, and Jon Bernthal, about whom more later) act the way newly superrich and morally bankrupt young men act. His duplicitous Swiss lawyer (Jean Dujardin) sets up the bank accounts (and him). None of the actors can be faulted; they’re uniformly good. (Even fingernails-on-a-chalkboard Rob Reiner is tolerable as Jordan’s father.) But there’s almost no depth to any of these characters.

Scorsese aims for greatness by having Jordan read an annoying voiceover throughout the film and deliver so many stentorian speeches on his trading floor, he makes the Bill Clinton of the ’92 presidential campaign seem taciturn by comparison. The floor itself is lined with white-shirted extras, about 98% of them men. During the years covered by the film, nobody at Stratton Oakmont takes a second off from speed-dialing, fist-pumping, coke-snorting, and dwarf-tossing. Scorsese films their frat-boy antics with a wide angle lens, often in slow motion. I get the feeling that, at a practical level, directing many of the film’s scenes involved the same sort of work done by the coordinators who whip potential contestants into a frenzy before tapings of “The Price is Right.” 

The best scenes are the few quiet ones, like a game of cat and mouse between Belfort and Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), the F.B.I. agent dogging him. Belfort invites Denham aboard his new yacht in hopes of bribing him. Denham admits to some resentments – he wears the same suit to work for days in a row, and himself once aspired to a career on the Street – but now lives to put guys like Belfort away. As Denham takes his leave, Belfort rains hundred dollar bills down on him (fun coupons, he calls them). The movie needed more scenes like this one, where the ground shifts momentarily and we don’t know how it will end.

Meanwhile, what does it tell of Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Robert De Niro that the richest and fullest of his many performances in 2013 comes not in “The Family” or “American Hustle” but the boxing comedy (warmedy, really) “Grudge Match”? De Niro plays Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, the successful owner of a bar and a car dealership. Decades ago, Billy’s rivalry with fellow Pittsburgher Henry “Razor” Sharp (Stallone) was the hottest in boxing, but after splitting two bouts, Sharp retired days before the rubber match, taking a blue-collar job at a steel mill. 

Enter Dante Slate, Jr. (Kevin Hart), son of their late promoter, who sees a potential grudge match as his ticket to the big time. Hart’s a hot commodity right now, with a successful comedy concert film and the co-lead in the upcoming “Ride Along.” But a little of him goes a long way, and director Peter Segal wisely rations out small doses here, letting Hart react to his leads, and especially to Alan Arkin as Sly’s old trainer, who’ll work with him again if he checks him out of his care facility. Arkin applies an atypically light touch here, earning genuine laughs in his byplay with Stallone and Hart.

The banter between Stallone and De Niro produces more smiles than laughs. They played the two most iconic film boxers of all time – Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta – and their mutual respect permeates “Grudge Match.” Not on their watch will those great characters be tarnished by the humilities of age, or the sweet science painted in an unflattering light. The fisticuffs themselves, once Segal gets around to them, look about as real as we would want them to – no more, no less.

I can’t recommend jostling through a crowded Christmas cineplex to catch “Grudge Match,” but if you come across it on the tube, you might be pleasantly surprised. It’s got a little of everything. Kim Basinger turns up as Sally, who has a past with both men. Segal spends a fair amount of time on the backstory, but it’s mainly an excuse to showcase how attractively Basinger has eased into her sixties (!).

Jon Bernthal plays B.J., the son De Niro learns of only now and an assistant football coach for the Pitt Panthers. As Jordan Belfort’s buddy Brad in “Wolf of Wall Street,” Bernthal sports a coiffure only slightly more attractive than Bradley Cooper’s in “American Hustle.” Here, with a closer-cropped cut (a look toward which I confess a predisposition), he exudes masculinity in a way that caused me literally to sit up in my seat. There’s something effortless and natural about his presence, and I was pleased to find that I’d singled him out for praise in my review of the Dwayne Johnson vehicle “Snitch” earlier this year. Here’s an actor who needs a leading role as soon as possible.

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