The Wolf of Wall Street – A Review

In a lot of ways, The Wolf of Wall is in many ways similar in spirit to my favorite Scorsese film, Goodfellas. Both take the viewer into a world that is unfamiliar to most (the mafia and Wall Street, respectively) and the different codes of behavior that apply to participants in these realms (unsurprisingly, there is more law and order in the mafia than on Wall Street). Both feature narration by the lead character and both lament the idea of being an ordinary person living an ordinary life. Both men rose from humble beginnings and stressed the importance of loyalty over honor. They both run with a crew of guys “from the neighborhood.” Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort may swim in different pools, but they really aren’t all that different.

It’s a credit to the fantastic performances, as well as the direction and cinematography, that The Wolf of Wall Street is so fun to watch with such a slimy unlikable character like Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name, the film is full of a lot of unlikable people doing a lot of terrible things. This is ostensibly a film about Wall Street brokers, but it is really a film about excess. While Goodfellas had plenty of violence, The Wolf of Wall Street is all about sex and drugs – especially the drugs. The amount of narcotics that these characters consume on a daily basis would kill a horse. All the while, Belfort and his pals are making money hand over fist through their predatory and aggressive method of trading and selling stock. Through in some money laundering and securities fraud and you have another day in the office at Stratton Oakmont. The traders engage in the kind of debauchery that would make most fraternity parties look like a tea party; this behavior is not only encouraged but is financed by Belfort and his cronies at the top. Their behavior is repulsive and yet you can’t look away; The Wolf of Wall Street manages to make these men alluring and disgusting at the same time. The fact that I didn’t tire of these characters and their terrible antics over the nearly three hour runtime means that Scorsese and company have put together an entertaining film. The film doesn’t celebrate this behavior; Belfort is not held up as any sort of aspirational ideal.

DiCaprio is great as Belfort; he displays a sort of swagger and bravado that I haven’t seen him possess before. Often when a director and actor pair up for multiple projects, there are eventually diminishing returns (see Johnny Depp and Tim Burton – the latter has pretty much ruined the former); that isn’t the case in the DiCaprio/Scorsese pairing. The duo continues to bring the best out of each other and I would be happy if pair continued to make films together ad infinitum. DiCaprio really brings Belfort to life and while he doesn’t necessarily make you feel sympathy for Belfort – nor do I think that is the intention of the movie – but you aren’t necessarily rooting for him to get his comeuppance either. Belfort as portrayed by DiCaprio occupies the same awkward space as many of the antiheros that have dominated the small screen the last few years – you don’t condone their behavior, but it is also a lot of fun to watch such reckless disregard for decency and laws. DiCaprio’s pretty boy appearance doesn’t automatically conjure up images of him as an alpha male, but he seamlessly transforms himself into a showboating and dominating personality that can rile up an entire company with one of his speeches. He’s never been so heartless and so cold; perhaps he is free to go for broke with this role because there is no effort made to make Belfort to be redeemable or likable. He has to hold nothing in reserve because this man never changes; there are no teachable moments for Belfort. Even when I don’t necessarily like the films that he is in, I generally like DiCaprio, but his work in The Wolf of Wall Street is among the best in his career. My only knock on his performance is that he doesn’t consistently get the accent right.

As Belfort’s schlubby and deranged right hand man Donnie Azoff, Jonah Hill also turns in a hilarious and wonderful performance. Belfort is a terrible guy, but Azoff is somehow even more unbalanced. Hill completely commits to his performance and the unlikability of his character. A lot of the big laughs in the film derive from Azoff’s lunacy; while Belfort occasionally can turn off his bad behavior, Azoff has no such off switch. He is all impulse with no control. Hill and DiCaprio play extremely well off each other and their friendship is completely believable.

The supporting cast is uniformly great as well – Australian actress Margot Robbie isn’t required to do much except be gorgeous (which she is), but she brings depth to her role as Belfort’s trophy wife Naomi; she also does a better job with the Queens accent than DiCaprio. Blog favorite Kyle Chandler (aka Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights) plays perhaps the only likable person in the whole film as the FBI agent that is trying to bring Belfort’s band of merry thieves down. Chandler does his usual solid job, but while morally you are rooting for him to be successful, you know that if he succeeds all the fun comes to an end. Matthew McConaughey turns up in a small but pivotal role early in the film as Belfort’s mentor when he first arrives on Wall Street. He knocks it out of the park as expected and creates a memorable role in his limited screen time; he’s really the catalyst for Belfort’s transformation from a quiet by-the-books guy to the Caligula-like man that he becomes. Jon Favreau and Rob Reiner also turn up in small parts.

Unsurprisingly, The Wolf of Wall Street is gorgeously shot and bares many Scorsese trademarks. The camera angles are used to illustrate points or exasperate behavior and they play with the film speed to simulate some of drug fueled binges. One Quaalude induced scene in particular is memorable; I’ve never taken the drug, but I imagine that they pretty successfully simulate its effects with their camera work. Scorsese and his team are able to make a film about really ugly behavior beautiful to watch. Even if you somehow got nothing out of the acting or story in the film, I think you would still be impressed with the aesthetic that they have put together. I’m always impressed with Scorsese’s choices behind the camera.

Some other thoughts:

  • I knew the guy that played Brad, the Quaalude King of Bayside, looked familiar but couldn’t quite place him; he’s played by Jon Bernthal, best known for his role as Shane on The Walking Dead.
  • Yup – that’s Academy Award winning Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as the Swiss banker. This film is seriously littered with talent.
  • She has a limited role as Belfort’s first wife, but Cristin Milioti is having a pretty great year as well. On the heels of her 2012 Tony nomination for Once, she lands the prized role of the mother on How I met Your Mother and gets to work on a Scorsese film. Not too shabby.
  • I really liked the use of music in the film; the used many familiar songs, but not the version that you are necessarily familiar with.
  • If my review hasn’t convinced you to go see The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps this GIF of DiCaprio dancing will seal the deal:

leonard-dicaprio-dancing

  • While the film kept my attention for most of its 180 minute run time, I do think that this film would have benefitted from a bit more editing. All of the scenes are good, but I don’t know that all were essential. As excited as I was for this movie, a 3+ hour time commitment (with previews) was a bit daunting.
  • Tis the season to go to the movies with family, but this probably isn’t the film to go see with your parents (unless you want an awkward car ride home).
  • Belfort is a despicable person, but odds are pretty good that I’ll now read his memoir after seeing the film. I’ll just get it from the library so he doesn’t benefit at all financially.

I really had a lot of fun watching The Wolf of Wall Street; DiCaprio is fantastic and is surrounded by a ridiculously talented supporting cast of characters. Jonah Hill continues to show his versatility as an actor; it is impressive that his two big films in 2013 were the very different This is The End and The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese in many ways has given us Wall Street for this generation; with the recent shenanigans on Wall Street and the benefit of hindsight, Belfort is not held up to be celebrated as a hero but to be reviled. “Greed is good” is no longer the mantra of our times. The Wolf of Wall Street impressively makes all this bad behavior immensely entertaining, but it is never sugarcoated as acceptable behavior. Definitely one of my favorite films of the year.

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