If Inside Llewyn Davis is about failure, The Wolf of Wall Street is about success, and how both are extremely difficult to handle. In some ways, Llewyn Davis and Jordan Belfort, the title character of Martin Scorsese’s immensely entertaining film, are opposites, but at the core they are the same–failures as human beings.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to be having the time of his life, is Belfort, a kid from Long Island who gets a job on Wall Street as a broker. He is mentored by Matthew McConaughey, who breaks it down to him during a several-martini lunch. The conversation is eerily similar to one that Jeremy Irons has in Margin Call, even down to the table and restaurant, in that we learn that wealth is ephemeral, and Wall Street firms don’t give a shit about the clients. They are only looking to line their own pockets, and isn’t that the way capitalism is supposed to be? McConaughey also advised DiCaprio to jerk off at least twice a day, and that the only reason to get into the business is “cocaine and hookers.”
And so, for about three hours, we get plenty of both. The Wolf of Wall Street is the most shamelessly debauched movie I can ever remember seeing outside of an straight-to-DVD American Pie film. Early on we see DiCaprio snorting coke from a prostitute’s asshole, which may be the summation of the film in its entirety. I mean, I’ve never done that–I’ve never even done coke–but the movie sure makes it look fun.
DiCaprio ends up losing his job in the crash of ’87 and is forced to work at a shoddy firm selling penny stocks. The upside is that the commissions are fifty percent, and DiCaprio could sell ice to Eskimos. In short order he starts his own company, along with Jonah Hill and a motley crew who are all great salesmen, and they are soon making money hand over fist. They are also doing things that are completely illegal.
He catches the eye of a straight-arrow FBI agent (Kyle Chandler), who cannot be bought, though DiCaprio tries (one of my favorite scenes is when DiCaprio brings Chandler aboard his yacht. Chandler tells him it’s the nicest boat he’s seen, and will love when it’s seized by the government). Eventually DiCaprio will go down, and while Belfort makes a wonderfully engaging character, there is a sense of great satisfaction at his fall, because no one should be having that much fun.
This film may have more drug usage than other film to come before it. The way it’s presented to us, the brokers could not exist without it. Quaaludes are used to relax; cocaine to perk back up again (a great visual gag is when DiCaprio snorts coke while a Popeye cartoon shows the sailor getting strong while eating spinach). We also see crack smoked and variety of other stimulants and depressants ingested, plus good old alcohol. And I worry that one Vivarin is overdoing it.
We also get a lot of sex. A lot. We are told about the three level of hookers, and are witness to an orgy on an airplane. The excess in this area is very Roman, and DiCaprio is not wrong to have compared his character to Caligula. At the very least, it seems out of the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.
That being said, though the film is funny and well-paced (I had to go to the bathroom about halfway through, but didn’t want to miss a moment) it never transcends a certain level; it’s as shallow as its lead character. Sure there are great set pieces, such as the guys discussing the protocol of how to hire dwarfs for tossing, or DiCaprio and Hill discussing whether Hill is actually married to his cousin, or the conversation that leads to the punchline, “I’m never eating at Benihana’s again, no matter whose birthday it is.”
The problem is that Belfort never grows. I was looking over the credits on IMDB and noticed that Belfort has a small part in the film (it’s based on his memoir). So in his mind this may just seem like another bit of glorification. Yes, he is arrested, he loses his company, etc., but he never seems to learn anything. The notion that Wall Street is populated by a bunch of hedonistic narcissists will surprise no one, although if I had any money I certainly wouldn’t buy from a cold-calling broker.
Still, I liked this film a great deal, judging it by a reduced standard. DiCaprio is fantastic, as is Hill, who does vulgar better than anyone other than Seth Rogen. Margot Robbie, my new imaginary girlfriend, is absurdly beautiful as DiCaprio’s second wife, and I was pleased to see she can actually act, as this Australian does a credible Brooklyn accent and goes toe to toe in a breakup scene with DiCaprio with aplomb. Also in the cast are Jean Dujardin as an oily Swiss banker and Rob Reiner as DiCaprio’s father.
It is a long film, and it doesn’t need to be. Some of it is exquisitely edited by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker. I think of a scene where DiCaprio is pitching a small company to invest, telling his mark that it’s an up-and-coming tech company, and we get a quick shot revealing it’s in a broken-down garage. But some scenes long outlast their welcome, like a scene in which DiCaprio is so wasted on ‘ludes that he has to crawl to his car. We have gotten the point and quit laughing long before he gets into that car.
My grade for The Wolf of Wall Street: B+.