Thursday, January 2, 2014

Reviews - Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street

Late December is often a time for family, but it's also a time for glutting on awards season movies, with multiple high-profile titles being released weekly. Naturally, families head out to the theatre on their precious days off in early winter, but finding the right flick for everyone can be a challenge.

To help you narrow things down (ever so slightly), here is a two-fisted review for a double feature I call the “Take-Your-Mom///DON'T-Take-Your-Mom Double Bill”. The comprising films: Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Now far be it for me to presume your mother's cinematic tastes, but if (like many people's moms) she's one of those Downton Abbey devotees who prefers lite drama of the genteel variety, or is simply convinced that British film and television is 'just better' than everything else, then it's hard to imagine her disliking Philomena.

Based on the 2009 non-fiction The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith (played in the film by Steve Coogan, who also co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay), it follows the travails of a darling old Irish woman (Judi Dench in the title role) as she and Sixsmith attempt to track down the long lost son that was taken from her fifty years ago. The jaded Sixsmith is only there to write a human interest story, a project which the former political correspondent considers quite beneath him. But as a surrogate mother-son relationship develops between the two, it isn't so unpredictable to see that Philomena has more to teach him than he realizes.

In the hands of a less tactful talent pool, it wouldn't take much for Philomena to descend into the same territory as the maudlin magazine dreck that Sixsmith originally set the story out to be. The film openly disparages the term “human interest story” as middlebrow sentimental pablum, before proceeding to feed its audience the very same on a Sterling spoon. Yet Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope understand the importance of writing to theme in order to flesh out the bathetic elements of the plot. Their adaptation bears lots of rich thematic fibre to probe, from religious corruption to class disparity to sin and forgiveness.

For that matter, I think I admire the work on the page a bit more than its execution here. Director Stephen Frears' soft touch is mostly well applied to this material, but unfortunately settles on a muddled tone that can't quite decide whether it wants its audience to laugh or cry; And this despite the insistent prodding of Alexandre Desplat's pleasant but overly informative score, which borrows none too conservatively from his compositions for Frears' similarly styled The Queen.

It chafes the funny bone to see Philomena served up as a working class simpleton for quick laughs, but Dench ultimately rises above being the butt of those jokes with a finely wrought performance that finds both emotional frailty and real human grace in her character. “Just because you're in first class doesn't mean you're a first class person,” she knowingly chides at one point. By the end of her journey, she shows us all what real class looks like.

*** out of ****

If Philomena sounds like it just might be your mum's cuppa Earl Grey, then you'd best steer her clear of the next title on my double bill, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, which could be likened to a double shot of comedy and tragedy blended in a martini shaker and then spiked with enough crack and Quaaludes to tranquilize a bull elephant.

Taking its cues from the Goodfellas playbook, The Wolf of Wall Street ricochets zealously through its loose series-of-events narrative structure, cataloging the meteoric rise and subsequently inevitable fall from “grace” of notorious stock broker Jordan Belfort, played here by Leonardo DiCaprio in a fearless, ferociously funny performance that ranks among the best work of his career.
Making his start by selling worthless penny stocks to gullible working class Americans for ludicrous prices on a 50% commission, Belfort works his way up the financial ladder, amassing an equally shady entourage of business associates – “ratholes” he calls them, and it's hard to disagree with that nomenclature – along with a nettlesome FBI investigation. I suppose indulging in every sex-crazed, pill-popping, booze-guzzling form of debauchery under the sun attracts a certain amount of attention.

Though under critical fire for allegedly glorifying Belfort and his crime-assisted lifestyle of decadence, sharp-minded viewers should be able to pick up on the willful satire of this piece. One scene, in which Belfort and his top executives callously yet pragmatically discuss the logistics of organizing a dwarf-tossing competition before proceeding to chant the infamous “gooble gobble” chorus from the 1932 cult classic Freaks, makes it perfectly clear what the filmmakers think of their subjects. True to the Goodfellas cloth from which it's cut, this is a backhanded indictment of a despicable freak show told in antithetically entertaining fashion.

Boardwalk Empire scribe Terence Winter's screenplay is darkly hysterical, but its extensive runtime (which occupies as many digits as Belfort's monthly income) eventually erodes the harsh bite of his prose to more of a dull gnaw by the film's end. Thankfully, even though the big picture lacks shape, Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker's work in the editing room – a decades-long artistic partnership that far outweighs any which the director has ever had with an actor – manages to keep the energy up, the pace fluid, and our attention rapt for much of that unwieldy three hours. Each scene is painstakingly constructed and milked for every possible comedic beat, cut with a degree of precision that only the practiced hands of a true master like Schoonmaker could achieve.

***1/2 out of ****

Maybe I'm generalizing a bit too much. Perhaps your mom is an even more avid Scorsese fan than you, or would be bored to death by Stephen Frears' stillness, but you should check out this double feature anyway. You may discover that Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street, though polarized in their genres and stylistics, have a few things in common (besides the fact that both are angling for a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination in this year's Oscar race). Both films examine the false perceptions given off by class; the idea that neither money nor social status nor religious piety can make you a good person; and that sin and redemption are a state of mind. Both have also stimulated some controversy for their perceived depictions of powerful institutions – The Catholic Church and Wall Street – but you can join those debates after you see the films for yourself. They both earn my recommendation, whether your mom likes them or not.


  1. A lot of people are saying that Margot Robbie did some scene stealing in Wolf. Was she really any good?

    1. She's good, but her character is underwritten. Acts almost as a cypher really, and doesn't do anything to move into the same territory as, say, Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas or Sharon Stone in Casino, which is essentially the role she's playing here.

  2. My mom would most definitely go for Philomena than Wolf personally. Great reviews, as always. Personally I favoured Wolf over Philomena, but both films, while having lots of differences have got lots of similarities as well, more than I ever thought.

    Just a quick question: When will you be getting on your Awards Nazi Awards?

    1. When I've seen everything. Gotta wait on the stuff that doesn't creep out until January.