Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 14th, 2014

The riffs of Wall Street

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Jonah Hill and Jon Bernthal in The Wolf of Wall Street

Over the weekend, I watched The Wolf of Wall Street for the second time, and I came away with two thoughts: 1) I like this movie one hell of a lot. 2) It still feels about twenty minutes too long. And unlike Casino—a propulsive three-hour epic that I wouldn’t know where to trim—it’s easy to identify the scenes where the movie grows slack. Most of them, unfortunately, revolve around Jonah Hill, an actor whose performances I enjoy and who works mightily in the service of an unwieldy enterprise. Hill is a massively energetic presence and an unparalleled comic riffer, and Scorsese appears to have fallen in love with his talents to the point of grandfatherly indulgence. The scene in which Hill’s character delivers a briefcase of cash to Jon Bernthal, for instance, seems to go on forever at a point in the story when momentum is at a premium, mostly so Hill can deliver two or three inventively obscene tirades. It’s amusing, but it would have been just as good, or better, at half the length. And while for all I know, the entire scene might exist word for word in Terence Winter’s script, it certainly feels like an exercise in creative improvisation, and it caused me to reflect about the shifting role of improv in film, both in Scorsese’s work and in the movies as a whole.

Improv has been a part of cinema, in one way or another, since the days of silent film, and directors have often leaned on actors who were capable of providing great material on demand. (Sigourney Weaver says as much in Esquire‘s recent oral history of Ghostbusters: “Bill [Murray] was kind of expected to come up with brilliant things that weren’t in the script, like day after day after day. Ivan [Reitman] would say, “All right, Bill, we need something here.”) Given the expense of physical celluloid and repeated setups, though, it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing performers to riff on camera, as many viewers assume. More frequently, an actor would arrive on set with unscripted material that he or she had worked out privately or in rehearsal, and the version that ended up in the finished scene was something that had already gone through several rounds of thought and revision. Things began to change with the widespread availability of excellent digital cameras and the willingness of directors like Judd Apatow to let actors play off one another in real time, since tape was cheap enough to run nonstop at marginal additional cost. When the results are culled and chiseled down in the editing room, they can be spectacular, like catching lightning in a bottle, and the approach has begun to influence movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, which was shot on conventional film.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson in The Departed

Like all good tricks, though, the improv approach gets tired after a while, and Apatow’s movies since Funny People and This is 40 have presented increasingly diminishing returns. The trouble lies in a fundamental disconnect between improv, character, and situation. A line may be hilarious in the moment, but if the riffs don’t build into something that enhances our understanding of the people involved, they start to feel exhausting or enervating—or, worst of all, like the work of actors treading water in hopes of a laugh. We aren’t watching a story, but a collection of notions, and they’re at their weakest when they’re the most interchangeable. Hill’s riffs in The Wolf of Wall Street are funny, sure, but they’re only variations on the hyperaggressive, pointedly offensive rants that he’s delivered in countless other movies. By the time the film is over, we still aren’t entirely sure who his character is; there are intriguing hints of his weird personal life early on, but they’re mostly discarded, and the movie is too busy to provide us with anything like a payoff. Many of Hill’s big scenes consist of him hitting the same two or three beats in succession, and for a movie that is already overlong, I can’t help but wish that Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker had kept Hill’s one best take and saved the rest for the special features.

Of course, many of the most memorable lines and moments in Scorsese’s own filmography have arisen from improvisation—“You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver, “I’m a clown? I amuse you?” in Goodfellas, the confrontation between DeNiro and Pesci while fixing the television in Raging Bull—so it’s hard to blame him for returning to the same well. Yet when we compare Hill’s work to those earlier scenes, it only exposes its emptiness. “You talking to me?” and “I’m a clown?” are unforgettable because they tell us something about the characters that wasn’t there in the script, while The Wolf of Wall Street only tells us how inventively profane Jonah Hill can be. And this isn’t Hill’s fault; he’s doing what he can with an underwritten part, and he’s working with a director who seems more willing to linger on scenes that would have been pared down in the past. We see hints of this in The Departed, in which Scorsese allows Nicholson to ham it up endlessly—imitating a rat, smashing a fly and eating it—in his scene at the restaurant with DiCaprio, but there, at least, it’s a set of lunatic grace notes for a character that the screenplay has already constructed with care. Improv has its place in movies, especially in the arms race of modern comedy, which is increasingly expected to deliver laughs without a pause. But as in so many other respects, The Wolf of Wall Street is a warning about the dangers of excess.

Quote of the Day

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Daniel C. Dennett

Evolution is all about processes that almost never happen…Take the set of infrequent accidents—things that almost never happen—and sort them into the happy accidents, the neutral accidents, and the fatal accidents; amplify the effects of the happy accidents—which happens automatically when you have replication and competition—and you get evolution.

Daniel C. Dennett

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2014 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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