Film Review – The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street
Everything about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is excessive. The story, the acting, the run time – all bloated for a purpose. We’ve seen films dealing with the immoral practices of greedy stockbrokers before, but none have been as electrifying. Scorsese is 71 years old, but instead of slowing down, he has gone the other way. He is ramped up here, hurtling through three hours of debauchery, hedonism, and decadent madness. Energy pulsates in every scene, combined with the strangeness of an hallucination. Many will compare this to his masterpiece Goodfellas (1990), in how the American Dream is seen through the eyes of criminals, and rightly so. But in tone, this also draws parallels with After Hours (1985) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), where events are shown through a surreal lens.
This is the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and is their best so far. DiCaprio’s flamboyant, over the top performance as stockbroker Jordan Belfort is hilariously manic. Based on the real Belfort’s memoir (adapted by Terence Winter), we are guided through his accelerated rise and fall in the late 80s and early 90s. He entered the scene a naïve kid, but quickly soaked up the ways of Wall Street. This is highlighted in a scene featuring Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s mentor, Mark Hanna. Continuing his run of great roles, McConaughey’s character sets Belfort up for everything to come next. He lays the seeds of corruption, instructing the necessity of making money and ignoring the client (he even goes so far as to say masturbating twice a day is a requirement for success). But before Belfort can make his mark, the stock market crash of 1987 left him picking up the pieces and starting over.
And boy does he. Armed with unyielding motivation and surrounded by cohorts not smart enough to know better, Belfort gains success (through empty penny stocks) in a massive way. He cannonballs into a world of money, drugs, and sex. Scorsese captures this with exuberance, tossing his camera deep into the trenches. It’s a wild and crazy place where millionaires can literally do anything they want to whomever they want. The editing from Thelma Schoonmaker is masterful as usual. It’s as though the film itself is high on cocaine, moving in different tangents at any given moment. No place is off limits – its vulgarity is as bad as the characters are.
This is an interesting turn for DiCaprio. His ability to be darkly comic shows an unexpected range. In one of the best scenes, Belfort struggles to drive home while tripping on qualuudes, and the sheer physicality of his attempt will garner the biggest laughs. Another strength is DiCaprio’s chemistry with Jonah Hill. Hill plays Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s partner and closest friend. Hill hits the right notes with his improvisation, but also demonstrates development in becoming a character. Azoff is not just a comedic sidekick, but also a fully formed person, good and bad. They’re a tag team of gluttony, fueling each other with booze and narcotics, and spending illegal money as quickly as they make it.
Belfort and his friends are depicted as endlessly fascinating, but they are not good people. They are vile and despicable to the point of being near sociopaths. They have no regard for anyone outside their circle. Scorsese knows this, and skewers them at every opportunity. The opening has Belfort and his employees tossing a little person onto a target like they were playing darts. When Belfort gives one of his colorful speeches to his company, everyone nods their head and froths at the mouth, resembling a pack of hungry wolves. Despite the flashy approach and abundant comedy, the actions taken are never condoned. The racism and misogyny are well on display. Wives and girlfriends are mere trophy pieces. When Belfort is not having sex with his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), he is fighting with her. And if their issues aren’t resolved, he gleefully ignores it by visiting one of his many prostitutes.
What a weird universe this is. Belfort represents an ideal that crosses the line. We all like to earn more money and live a more comfortable life, but at what point does it go too far? That’s the question that permeates The Wolf of Wall Street. Once Belfort tastes that lifestyle, he will go to any lengths to maintain it. He’ll travel to foreign countries, and even risk the lives of those closest to him to feed his unending lust for more. Even when the FBI – lead by agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) – comes knocking at his door, Beflort refuses to believe he’ll get caught. His hubris prevents him from seeing any potential consequences of his deeds. This is the cinematic equivalent of a rollercoaster. I cannot recall another three-hour film that flew by as fast. It doesn’t say anything new about this world, but it says it with such funny and unique intensity. Martin Scorsese has once again proven why he is one of the best filmmakers of his – or any – generation.