Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

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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+.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

10 responses »

  1. So even as a fan of the film JS, in your view is the anger & outrage this film has generated in some quarters over lauding Belfort is understandable, even justified?

  2. I think the script wants its cake and to it eat it, too. At the same it’s tsking-tsking about Belfort’s behavior, it’s also envying him. I’m not outraged by it, but this split personality makes it a lesser movie.

  3. Thinking about it, JS’s review reminds me a lot of my reaction to ‘Goodfellas’ (which I saw for the first time fairly recently). It’s undoubtedly brillantly made – I’ve never seen a film of well over 2 hours feel like it goes by so quickly. There’s not a dull moment in the film.

    But to compare it in terms of ‘The Godfather’ in depth and texture, it’s not in the same league. It’s a cartoon in comparison with very little depth. And it’s underlying admiration for the gangster way of life was rather dispiriting. A highly entertaining film no doubt, but not the classic that it’s widely accredited with today.

  4. Wait, what?!
    ……………not………………..a…………….classic?
    ……………no……………………………………depth?
    To …..GOODFELLAS?

  5. I think Goodfellas is better than The Wolf of Wall Street by a fair bit. There are some similarities, granted, but what Goodfellas has going for it is that it takes us so far inside the insular world of the mob. It shows us so much about how the mob operates logistically, and about the internal politics of the organization, and the complicated ways that all the characters interact not just with each other but the outside world as well.

    Wolf doesn’t really have a lot of that, and in fact it seems to go out of its way to avoid that kind of complexity. For example, at least twice, Belfort starts explaining to the camera how his schemes work before telling us that it’s too boring/complicated to explain. The whole movie is so single-mindedly focused on his debauchery that it doesn’t have room for much else. Goodfellas had room for a lot more than just the material perks of being a gangster.

    That said, I don’t want to make Wolf sound like a bad film. It’s almost amazing how well it plays, given its length and monotony of subject matter. I’ll comfortably give it an 8/10 when I write it up on my blog. But it’s also faintly disappointing, and pretty much a failure as an indictment of Wall Street culture, as it seems to be positioning itself as – the first half of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, while perhaps a bit fanciful, was a lot more trenchant in that regard as Wolf.

  6. It’s too long and too repetitive, but there’s some pretty good stuff in there. As far as the outrage – it’s BS to me.

  7. This is filmmaking of the absolute highest order from a 70 year old master. The editing is amazing and the acting first-rate.
    I don’t know how anyone can’t see this as anything but an indictment on what these guys are doing and on the entire world they operate within.
    That being said, from the 30 minute mark it’s like a repeated cudgel to the head…but you want it to hit you over and over because it’s Leo and Scorsese. Thankyouhappymoreplease.
    It may be strange, but this movie is sublime when it slows down. The trip to her apartment and outside the front of the hotel scene and the ‘interrogation’ and the Swiss Bank Scene and when it slows down it’s vintage Scorsese and it’s sublime…until the 2 hour mark, when I was ready for it to be over or at least get to the point, but it picks it back up for the final bits and this is the way you use music in a movie, that’s for damn sure.
    “For a moment, I’d forgotten i was rich.”
    Man, what a statement. What an indictment. If people can’t see that, then that’s something…BUT…this did have a strange ending for me, and though I kinda think I got what he was saying with it, it seemed like he was disavowing, in one single shot, the indictment he’d spent so long masking as a romp. We’re all Belfort? Belfort is us? We’re all born salesman? I don’t know, but it was a strange way to end it, I thought.
    Bo Dietl. Worst celebrity cameo of the year. By far. They even had to use his name in the movie so people would know it was Bo Dietl.

  8. I think casting the real Jordan Belfort as the guy introducing (and praising) Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort in that final scene is a mistake. It doesn’t hurt the movie necessarily… it’s one minute in a nearly three hour orgy of fun after all… but it certainly doesn’t help the argument that the movie isn’t quite the indictment its makers claim it to be.

  9. This movie, man…the talent on display in this movie… At his best, Scorsese has shots as good as anything Toland and Welles did on Kane. At his worst, he has Michael Mann-level street set-pieces that crackle with energy. To see filmmaking of this level from a 70 year old man, it’s astonishing, and the level at which he’s operating in Wolf of Wall Street is a wonder to behold, it truly is. Some of those tracking shots and some of the blocking in master shots is the best I’ve seen this century and on a level with his greatest work. The long tracking shot over the desks and back again? (Which I couldn’t figure out until I realized it must be a set) and the long shot outside the hotel, and the blocking of the actors in the junk bond place as they listen to Leo and the tracking shot past the faces and-my god. it’s all so sublime.

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