The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio; Jonah Hill; Margot Robbie
Reviewer: Sean Daly
For Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, in a career best performance), vile protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, great isn’t good—greed is God. In Jordan’s case, however, his greed isn’t for the infinite fortune, spacious mansion, or Stanley Cup trophy-level wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) he possesses but, rather, to be worshiped as a deity himself. It’s a lofty aspiration Jordan, more nihilist than capitalist, spends three hours of screen time attempting to pull off through the cloak of rampant materialism—and possibly does. Unfortunately Scorsese, one of the finest American filmmakers of all time, doesn’t come as close Jordan to hitting his own ambitious target—making a great film revolving almost entirely around unredeemable characters.
Following the typical Scorsese framing device of a main character voicing over the story somewhere in progress, The Wolf of Wall Street begins where many rise-and-fall films do—with the humble beginnings of the hero/antihero. For Jordan, this means an entry-level position at a Wall Street firm where he meets Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, excellent as has become his norm), a morally bankrupt stock broker who equates things such as chronic masturbation and drug use as keys to success in the financial world. Jordan loses his job on Black Monday but not the gist of Hanna’s dubious lesson. Soon enough, he gathers a ragtag group of friends, including Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), to form Stratton Oakmont, a decidedly off-Wall Street firm whose true purpose is to dupe desperate people into buying garbage stocks. Jordan quickly succeeds with his scheme and makes a fortune. He also draws the attention of the SEC and FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who seeks to bring him and his cohorts down. The jeopardy remaining—or so it seems—is will Jordan get away with it?
The film’s biggest problem is that the viewer isn’t encouraged to care. The Wolf of Wall Street would have benefitted greatly from more attention paid to its primary law enforcement character beyond the heavy handed juxtaposition of crook on yacht vs. good man riding subway. While the screenplay is based upon the real Jordan Belfort’s book—which understandably reflects only the crook’s point of view—Scorsese, as filmmaker, had ultimate power to ground the story somewhat by devoting at least one scene to Denham’s motivations as a decent public servant who wants to take Jordan down before he swindles more people. Such a scene, however, never comes. Perhaps Scorsese felt such an approach to be too judgmental, pedestrian, or simple-minded, but, the gravity of people losing their life savings feels too heavy to ignore and providing an emotional anchor, even if small, to counteract Jordan’s hedonistic rampage would have made for a more impactful viewing experience.
Comparisons to Scorsese’s Goodfellas are inevitable and, stylistically, there are similarities. Where it falls well short of the director’s ultimate masterpiece is by not understanding less is often more when a storyteller intends to shock. Yes, Goodfellas had a number of notoriously jarring scenes but they were memorable because of their sudden, storm the after calm quality resulting in dire repercussions for multi-faceted characters we cared about despite their flaws. The end result was an exhilarating experience leaving the viewer wanting more even after three hours. The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, features mostly flat characters in profane scene after profane scene after profane scene intended to shock but instead numbing the viewer into being very cognizant of the film’s epic length. Of the many supporting characters, only Donnie and Brad (Jon Bernthal), a small time drug dealer and the one member of Jordan’s flock intelligent enough not to buy in, manage to stick out. The rest of the cast won’t evoke memories of Tommy DeVito or Jimmy Conway, particularly director Rob Reiner as Jordan’s father, a character described as scary but more a loud meathead than anything else.
Such criticisms are not meant to imply that The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a good movie or worth seeing. DiCaprio, despite his leading man pedigree, has always been more 70’s DeNiro/Hoffman than 70’s Redford/Newman in terms of having no vanity on screen or concern for image, admirable traits that have never been more apparent than in this film. He absolutely shines, displaying remarkable physical comedy skills (the scene in which he must drive a car high out of his mind on Quaaludes is an instant classic) and commanding the screen at all times. His Jordan is a drug addicted, wife-beating sociopath who, despite being highly successful, isn’t terribly intelligent about anything beyond identifying people dumber than he is. The scenes in the offices of Stratton Oakmont in which DiCaprio delivers speeches to his rapt acolytes border upon mesmerizing, as the actor’s charisma elevates what could resemble something out of a Tony Robbins seminar to rival any great orator who is, nevertheless, completely full of shit and knows it. On the strength of his work and Scorsese’s ambition (a mediocre-for-Scorsese movie is still better than 95% of most other director’s best work) I give The Wolf of Wall Street, despite its flaws, a rating of two guys.