Does The Wolf of Wall Street bite? PEOPLE's critic tackles Martin Scorsese's wild new film

By Alynda Wheat and People's Movie Critic
Updated December 27, 2013 05:00 PM
Credit: Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

The debauchery of Wall Street comes to life in the latest film from director Martin Scorsese with strong performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, although the final product leaves our critic feeling disappointed.

Meanwhile, can beautiful cinematography save The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

Here’s what to see (or not…) in theaters this weekend.

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The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese’s audacious take on the life of Wall Street stock pusher Jordan Belfort bursts with vibrant storytelling and ferocious performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.

It’s also self-indulgent glorification of excess that treats women like blow-up dolls and doesn’t even stop to consider Belfort’s working-class victims. In other words, it’s a party – but we’re not invited.

To be clear, I’m not calling Scorsese a misogynist, though this cinematic version of the real-life Belfort most definitely is. The former Wall Street grunt climbs out of the sewer of boiler-room cold calling to build Stratton Oakmont, a firm that makes him a stunningly rich man.

He cheats on his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), with his second, Naomi (Margot Robbie). Then he cheats on Naomi with anyone he can get his paws on. In one scene, Jordan instructs the audience on the difference between high-priced prostitutes, run-of-the-mill hookers and “skanks.” As an example of the latter, a tattooed woman sits on a desk on the trading floor, engaged in pay-for-play sex with a Stratton employee, while a line of men wait their turn. No one bats an eye.

To be in Jordan’s hermetically sealed world for three hours (!) is to hear only his point of view – he narrates the film, from time to time – and see only his perspective. Who cares about the schnooks he’s fleecing on the other end of the line? We never see them.

If either of his wives feel betrayed, complicit or even think about killing the guy, we’d barely know, since they don’t get much time to express anything going on in their heads. Heck, people die in a tragic plane crash and there’s nary a beat before the next party. But what we do get plenty of is Jordan, Jordan, Jordan, preaching to his self-satisfied flock about what brilliant masters of the universe they all are. Isn’t that fun?

If there’s a reason to watch Wolf it’s because of DiCaprio and Hill, who give completely unselfconscious performances that are, in spite of the worst of the material, often funny. DiCaprio looks positively simian half the time, as Jordan stuffs Quaaludes in his mouth, sometimes to hilarious effect. One attempt to drive a car after an overdose is a mini master class in physical comedy.

Hill, meanwhile, is almost delightful as Donnie Azoff, Jordan’s nebbishy right-hand man, desperately affecting a preppie heterosexual persona. They’ll get plenty of awards-season love, almost certainly more than the film, itself.

Wolf of Wall Street disappoints, particularly, because Scorsese is usually so good at taking us places to which we don’t have access – worlds of wise guys, wealthy women, boxers and broads, of dirty cops and honorable thieves. They’re as relatable as they are exotic. But there’s nothing exotic or empathetic about a bunch of scheming, loathsome creeps given a whole movie in which to play (again) on our dime. There are no wages of sin on this Street – in fact, it looks like sin pays pretty damned well.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Ben Stiller resurrects the daydreamer from the 1947 original, but never gives much of a compelling reason as to why.

This Walter is a photo processor for Life magazine in its last days, belittled by his new boss, Ted (Adam Scott, not quite fitting the cartoonish bully role), and crushing on fellow employee Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). His wandering mind turns him into a virtual superhero or rugged explorer, but really he’s the schlub who can never manage to say the right thing at the right time.

That all changes when Walter loses a crucial photograph, a once-in-a-lifetime shot from photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) meant to grace the cover of the magazine’s final issue. A quest to track down O’Connell sends Walter all over the globe, giving the movie desperately needed steam, not to mention some inexpressibly beautiful cinematography.

But even gorgeous shots don’t help Mitty land on a cohesive tone or fix the nonexistent chemistry between Stiller and Wiig. As around-the-world adventures go, this one may leave you wishing you’d stayed at home.

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Grudge Match
I just can’t stand watching great actors in dumb movies. It’s Rocky vs. Raging Bull as Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro square off, playing aging boxers with an ancient vendetta.

Stallone is Henry “Razor” Sharp, while De Niro blusters as Billy “The Kid” McDonnen, far more successful in his post-boxing life than Razor, but also a far bigger jerk. When boxing promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) comes knocking with promises of a big payday if the fighters will get back in the ring, neither side can turn it down.

The problem lies with none of the actors, including Kim Basinger as Razor’s one-that-got-away, Sally, but with the feeble script.

Clichés run amok while the jokes fall mostly flat, as each boxer trains to beat the crap out of the other senior citizen. Stallone and De Niro are both in enviable shape, but does anyone really want to see them wail on each other?

All of that said, The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal emerges as an actor you’ll want to see again, so compelling is he as Billy’s son, BJ, helping to train the estranged old man for the fight. If you ignore my advice on The Wolf of Wall Street you’ll see him do some great work there, too. He’s one to watch.