Monday, June 2, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese.
2013. Rated R, 180 minutes.
Leonardo DiCaprio
Jonah Hill
Margot Robbie
Jon Favreau
Rob Reiner
Jean Dujardin
Kyle Chandler
Jon Bernthal
Katarina Cas
Matthew McConaughey

Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) is a young stock broker on Wall Street in the late 1980s. Things are going well and only getting better when the rug gets pulled from beneath the feet of the financial world. I'm referring to Black Monday in October of 1989 when the market fell over five hundred points. Down, but not out, he finds work way off the beaten path selling cheap stocks to not-so-good companies. The draw is that these types of stocks have super high commissions. After turning that into his own personal gold mine, he decides to strike out on his own and hires a few of his buddies to help. Pretty soon the boys go from just unethical to flat out illegal business practices. Lots of dough and debauchery ensues.

The magic of this movie stems from the fact that the director, the main characters, and particularly the lead actor all fully understand that the life these people led is about as far detached from most of our realities as you can possibly get. Though based on a true story, the entire thing has a tongue-in-cheek feel that lets us know this very thing. With very little time spent with Belfort as a naive young broker, and always being a bit on edge, the film quickly becomes us a watching a pack of overgrown boys during their never ending frat party. This keeps the movie fun even though we know that much of the behavior is just wrong.

There are two ring leaders in all the commotion. The most obvious is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort. He dives in with both feet right off the bat and never lets up. The catalyst is a very early scene that includes a memorable cameo by Matthew McConaughey playing an old jaded broker with a love for controlled substances. Seeing this guy make a lot of money and basically behave however he wants is all the permission both Justin and, by extension Leonardo, needs to open his throttle all the way. It's like DiCaprio's Gatsby decided to actually take part in the parties he was throwing because he was possessed by the soul of John Belushi from Animal House. All he needs is a co-pilot. He gets that in Jonah Hill's Donnie Azoff. Hill's comedy background serves him well as his timing is impeccable. With DiCaprio, the two perform a trapeze act at startling heights without a net. They never fall.

The other ring leader is our director, Martin Scorsese. He understands that his protagonist is an absurd man leading an absurd life, therefore he depicts it in absurdist extremes. Nothing tame happens. Their office parties are nothing like any I've ever been to or even heard of from anyone I've ever met. Even at the wildest ones I know of, most of the debauchery took place behind closed doors and in dark corners with most attendees having knowledge of, but not actually seeing the stuff they tell stories of. Either that, or the raunchy behavior was confined to an intoxicated individual or two. Here, it's full on group hedonism with no thoughts of tact or consequences. This perfectly parallels Belfort's life as a whole. Scorcese wisely doesn't try to rein him in. He uses Belfort's dad, played by Rob Reiner, as a voice of reason. However, it's a voice that often falls on deaf ears. Not even the law sniffing around their obviously illegal business can stop the party. It's the most fun the director has been in years, maybe ever.

I've read a lot about how American Hustle, released around the same time and directed by David O. Russell, feels more like a Scorsese film than The Wolf of Wall Street which actually is one. I understand the sentiment. That movie is a more urban, gritty New York crime drama while this is just a wild ride through the more upscale part of town. Within that framework, however, you can still see the director's touches all over it.  Like Henry Hill in GoodFellas, Sam Rothstein in Casino, and Frank Costello in The Departed, Jordan Belfort is fully aware that he's the bad guy. Also like them, he thinks he's smarter than everyone else and can certainly stay one step ahead of the cops. He also has problems with his woman. This comes complete with a strong performance from our leading lady. Here, Margot Robbie seems to be channelling Priscilla Presley to play Jordan's wife Naomi. That may seem like faint praise, but it is such a perfect fit for what's going on around her.

When the end comes, we're not sure how to take it. Are we glad that the villain has been stopped? Or, are we sad the party is over? After all, as portrayed by DiCaprio, Belfort is ridiculously charismatic and just mesmerizes us from the jump. It's like watching one of our friends get punished for something we know they did. We understand they had it coming, but we're still disappointed we won't get to hang out with them anymore. This is the spell Scorsese puts us under. We fight to break out of it because we know what's happening just ain't right. The key to the whole movie is that we can't.


  1. I didn't like the movie for the content, but I felt like it was a good movie. Some of the camera work was just beautiful.

    It was just sooooo over the top (and admittedly tongue in cheek). I just don't think it was for me.

    However, this film highlighted for me that DiCaprio is really a fantastic actor. He's probably one of the best of his generation. For whatever reason, he's so underrated and not given the credit he's due.

    Lastly, another thing that disturbs me is how Jordan Belfort only spent 2 years in prison and then wrote a book that made him even more money. Oy vey.

    1. It was so overboard I understand how it could be a bit much for some. For me, it was done so perfectly on purpose it worked wonders.

      I agree that DiCaprio is an amazing actor. I would absolutely put him among the very best of his generation. He has already given a number of outstanding performances and this is among them.

      I am equally disturbed by the real Belfort only serving a short sentence. However, in terms of the movie, I was caught up in it enough to where I still had mixed emotions for the dramatized version of the man.

    2. I really enjoyed your review. I put a link to it from my weekly link post. I tried to link to you from twitter, but I'm not sure if you're on twitter? If so, let me know. Great post.

    3. Thanks for linking me. Unfortunately, I'm not on twitter. I keep saying I'm going to get on it, but just haven't done it. I really appreciate the effort. As at least a small token, I'm adding you to my blog roll.