Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

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Taking Stock

There’s no question that some of you will despise The Wolf of Wall Street. For a moment let’s pretend I understand that reaction. We’ve been conditioned for the longest time to believe, in film and literature, that characters should be sympathetic and stories should find their way using a moral compass. It’s what the critic James Wood once described as “a contagion of moral niceness”; an orthodoxy that demands we condemn the disgraceful, watch the wicked get their comeuppance and see the sinner redeemed by adopting virtue. So beat your chest and snort cocaine from someone else’s, because at last we have a great movie about depravity and greed in which the protagonist/antagonist survives three hours of story without a single, discernable scruple. Jordan Belfort is not a better man at the end of Martin Scorsese’s film. God help you, you’ll have to decide whether you approve without the filmmaker’s help.

Can it really be a surprise that Wolf is a study in excess with a blank sheet where the conclusion should be? Not really. It’s funded by former investment bankers, Riza Aziz and Joey McFarland, and retold using the wealthy hardons that populate the movie industry, itself a hotbed of greed, immaturity and egomania. In fact it’s reasonable to assert that had Belfort got the bus to L.A instead of New York, there’s every chance he’d have ended up becoming a full time movie producer instead. He clearly thought so too as he later dabbled, executive producing Hulk Hogan action comedy, Santa with Muscles. After watching Scorsese’s movie you may think this unlikely flirtation with the big screen was a scam to launder some stolen cash. The thought Hogan’s movie may be legitimate is too awful to contemplate.

By any conventional yardstick Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio is reprehensible. The treatment of misogyny, drug use, profligacy, hedonism and criminality is uncritical; it’s a film narrated by a sneering crook and self-proclaimed “former member of the middle class”, that refuses to make notes in the margin. Kyle Chandler’s investigating FBI agent, a man we’d normally expect to win the moral victory in such cases, is resoundingly mocked by Belfort for his meagre salary and subway trip home with Joe and Jacinda Public. At movie’s end, at the point he should be celebrating, he’s making that journey and surveying the carriage, defeat etched on his face.

Yet Wolf of Wall Street often feels like the best party you’ve ever attended. How can it be this and depraved, you say? Well the answer mirrors an early scene in which Belfort, on his first day as a trainee broker, is taken to dinner by old hand Mark Hanna, a memorable and near movie stealing turn by Matthew McConaughey. One meal with the charismatic and apologetically unscrupulous Hanna is enough to destroy Belfort’s moral centre. Monogamy, sobriety, legality: all gone is less time than it took you to read to this point. What Hanna does to Belfort, the movie does to us. We’re invited by a mischievous Scorsese to identify with a bad man and go along for the ride. The calculation is that once the film’s over and you’ve crashed you’ll start to feel guilty, asking yourself searching questions about what happened in that cinema. It’s this challenge to the audience’s virtue that’s frightened the movie’s detractors.

A story with a principle character this confident requires equally bold direction. Cue Scorsese, who orchestrates with an assuredness unseen since the days of Goodfellas. It’s not the equal of that film, it’s inevitably limited by the narrator’s lack of depth, but there’s no denying the pace, pizzazz and virtuosity that the veteran filmmaker’s added to the enterprise. And who but Scorsese could get a performance this complete from the penny stock that is Leonardo DiCaprio? The director’s fascination with the actor is a kind of myopia; he clearly believes him to be better than he is; but on this occasion he’s almost cultivated his leading man into a performer we can believe in. DiCaprio’s pushed to his limit here; energetic, comedic and relaxed; but only the president of his fan club would argue against the proposition that substituting Leo for someone like the briefly glimpsed McConaughey might have pushed this hugely enjoyable movie over the top.

You can have too much of a good thing; the film feels fractionally overlong at three hours and would have benefited from a touch more discipline in the editing suite, but boredom’s never really an option in a story that’s alive with sex, cocaine and barmstorming comic setpieces. The only false note is the film’s confused chronology, ostensibly charting Belfort’s life from 1987 to 1994 (according to time marked in dialogue) yet featuring anachronistic phones and mentions of the Internet stock bubble. Was this a mistake or does the time displacing effect of so many drugs extend beyond the big screen? Who knows but it’s great fun while it lasts. Anyone else for jerking off?

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Country: US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 180 mins

Certificate: 18 for a good performance from Jonah Hill, The Equalizer and the best joke about Israel ever committed to celluloid.

3 Responses

  1. Teelar says:

    Ed- help me understand something here. Do you sell the advertisement space right into your review? Is the space sold first and then you find a way to work it in with a little phrase that kinda works? The ads for classesUSA and shopping.com, do they pay you for that? Naively thinking that one of them might link me to further reading to expound on your point, I almost clicked one of them. Needless to say, I was disappointed. So, all I was left with was a clumsy dig at Leonardo DiCaprio. (the penny stock that is…)
    So, if I may- really? Do you really believe that McConaghey would have been a better fit to play Belfort? For three hours? Look, I’m a fan of Mr. McConaghey, but aside from age range, physical dissimilarity, and such, he just wouldn’t make any sense for the role. DiCaprio was epic in this. I understand haters are haters but c’mon, the man is a fine actor. The penny stock that is…? What? He’s one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, opinion of him aside. That sentence made no sense when I first read it. It is starting to come together though, now that I see the ad to which it links. I am thinking about a Steve Martin movie here called Leap of Faith (you probably know where this is going). Aluminum siding? Ring a bell? Where the man preaching God works in little catch phrases because he is a sell out and he doesn’t even believe what he is selling? Please help me make this make sense. Other than that I enjoyed the rest of the review (though, not really). Shit, sorry, I borrowed another one of your catch phrases there.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Teelar, I’m very happy to help you in this instance.

      I’m sorry to say I don’t think it was a clumsy dig at Leo at all, rather a pretty good one in the context of Wolf of Wall Street, which you’ll have noticed this is a review of. If the reference was opaque for you that’s not my fault. It’s clear and in English. I can’t do a lot more.

      The fact that Leo looks nothing like Belfort aside, in the same way that Dennis Quaid will never be mistaken for Jerry Lee Lewis and no one’s ever stopped Erin Brockovich and said, “excuse me, aren’t you Julia Roberts?”, the point I was making is that MM has something Leo’s lacking: strength in depth. I like Leo, and this part plays to his strengths – he gets to be cocky, rich and shout a lot – he’s good at these things, but fun as he was, and I agree this is a good performance from him, it would have been even better with an actor who had a bit of metaphoric weight.

      Now before you start, I like DiCaprio, generally speaking, but I think this argument that he’s a great actor, I mean, Oscar worthy, is based on a basic confusion between actors that are liked and actors that are revered because they can do characters in the purest sense. So I “like” Keanu Reeves (another popular actor with huge global recognition) in Bill and Ted, I can’t think of a better person to play that part, but you’re not going to tell me Keanu’s an actor of range and depth, are you? ARE YOU? Let’s hope not.

      Still, Martin Scorsese agrees with you. Lean on that crutch if you need to. Despite people like me pointing out he was the weak link in The Departed and Gangs of New York, and fine but not stellar in The Aviator, he’s cast him again anyway, maybe because he believes he’s got a new De Niro, maybe to prove to himself and his detractors that Leo’s the actor he took him for following a particularly enjoyable first meeting. We’ll never know but he is well cast here, or to put it another way, Scorsese’s found a part that suits his range and doesn’t require him to totally transform himself into another character type.

      As for this weird tirade about advertising space, I’m forced to consider two possibilities. A) you’re mad and have started to see things or B) your browser has somekind of spyware or similar that roots out key words and phrases and links them to other websites. If you send me a screen grab perhaps I can be more help. In the meantime I can assure both you and Leonardo DiCaprio that I sell no advertising space as my daily diet of mouldy bread and cabbage water attests.

  2. Mickey Sheahan says:

    I disagree, Dicaprio was incredible in the role. I didn’t like Dicaprio until I saw this movie. He did something that is nearly impossible to be done, he took a character that is horrible, and we all should hate… and made him awesome. This was something i’ve never seen, at least i haven’t seen as well as dicaprio did. We all should hate jordan belfort, he’s a horrible person and a jerk… but dicaprio was incredible. his best accomplishment in the film was making me like him, he was fun, charismatic and comical in a character who is a jerk, hateable and moraly starved. He deserves best actor for the role