Review: The Wolf of Wall Street


A 71 year-old man has made the most wildly audacious and profane film of the year. Granted, when it comes to profanity and cinematic flair, there is only one Martin Scorsese, but to see a film such as this produced in his autumn years is frankly remarkable. The Wolf of Wall Street is the type of film that conjures many pretenders, those who yearn endlessly to scale the Alps, but whose successes pale in comparison. For Mr. Scorsese, it couldn’t look any easier. As a gargantuan tale of excess, The Wolf of Wall Street is a wild and raucous look at all where all of modern America’s economic troubles began, with its master director as nimble as ever, and its leading man at his most physically and emotionally incredible.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) wasn’t always an animal. When he began his career on Wall Street in the mid-1980s, Belfort was a baby-faced twenty two years old, happily married, and completely naive to the tidal wave of greed and deceit that was about to consume him. His first day on the job is a jarring one, as he butts heads with an abrasive boss, but he finds inspiration in head stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who moves at the speed of a bullet train thanks to copious cocaine use. It isn’t long before Jordan finds himself at home in the urban jungle of Manhattan, only to lose his job on the infamous Black Monday of 1987 as the market went in a downward spiral. Now on his own, he discovers a firm in Long Island that trades in minuscule penny stocks. He immediately jumps on to it, and he makes 50% commission on these stocks as opposed to 1% with the big boys. As he gradually rakes in more and more money, he meets Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) a young lad who quickly becomes his right hand man. Belfort gathers up a team of several close colleagues and teaches them all the art of the sell, creating a new company of Stratton Oakmont in the process. In no time they come roaring on Wall Street with Belfort at the helm, causing any kind of debauchery they can, and naturally attracting the eye of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in the process.

Given his cinematic record, to say that The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s wildest film ever is no overstatement. From marching bands and strippers at the office, endless consumption of narcotics, orgies on planes, and crashing all of the most expensive types of transportation, everything that happened in Belfort’s life was somehow true. Because of the wall to wall insanity, its also Scorsese’s most uproarious film, and also his longest. Clocking in at just one minute shy of three hours, its a contemporary epic, and rightfully so. The vast ensemble here is all quite impressive especially the klutzy wisecracks from Hill and sultry Australian actress Margot Robbie as Belfort’s wife Naomi, a role that could have easily been an empty trophy wife, but she injects a needed vitality especially as her husband goes further into the deep end.

There’s no question, however, this is Leo’s show from start to finish. Not many actors, A-list or otherwise, have the stamina to carry a three hour hour opus, but DiCaprio’s magnetism cannot be denied. Like so many Scorsese protagonists, Belfort isn’t the least bit likable, but he’s whip smart and funny, and more importantly, fascinating. This feels like a capstone performance for DiCaprio, a manically crazed synthesis of all of his talents into a single portrayal. From his cheery eyed early days to his drug infused empire heights and everything in between, no performance this year displays the range that DiCaprio finds here. His gifts here are furthered even more into the realm of physical comedy, and one particularly astounding sequence involving quaaludes is likely to be remembered as both one of his and Scorsese’s finest moments.

Nearing 45 years of making features, one would have expected Martin Scorsese to ease up with his level of productivity, but in fact, this is the most prolific he’s ever been, with three features, two documentaries, and a television pilot all in just the last four years. While The Wolf of Wall Street is just short of ascending to the heights of his masterpieces, it nevertheless contains countless moments of brilliance. Witness Belfort’s whirlwind first day on Wall Street, as Scorsese cuts effortlessly from handheld to stedicam as the young stockbroker finds himself overwhelmed by the financial possibilities. Though many of the scenes are shot and cut at a breakneck pace, The Wolf of Wall Street also does find time to settle into lengthier scenes, most of which involve Belfort’s life outside of his Wall Street shenanigans. While Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as typically precise as one could expect, sometimes the length of the film can be felt and a few scenes could have been tightened. However, no scene feels completely tangential, as everything builds on itself in accumulation of Jordan’s empire. One gets the sense that Scorsese intended for the length to be felt, as Belfort’s reign in Wall Street lasted for an entire decade. Once again, nobody in the film industry employs soundtrack cues to the same efficacy that Scorsese does, and The Wolf of Wall Street adds several more memorable moments, courtesy of selections such as Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and a great cover of “Mrs. Robinson” by The Lemonheads.

So what exactly is the moral stance that The Wolf of Wall Street takes on its white collar crooks? As with his other films about criminals, Scorsese resists passing judgement on Belfort and his cohorts, and certainly makes their exploits looks like crazy fun. In several respects, this can be seen as a companion film to Goodfellas as both films are compulsively watchable, even if our protagonists are their own worst enemies. Scorsese and writer Terrence Winter certainly aren’t excusing these men of their trespasses, but rather showing us the origins for where we are now economically. True, Stratton Oakmont had nothing to do with the financial collapse of 2008, but it does metaphorically represent the moral ground zero for where it all began. The sheer greed and ruthlessness by the clueless stockbrokers of Stratton Oakmont permeated throughout all of Wall Street culture, and the soaring financial highs of the 1990s, came crashing down by the end of the 2000’s. Scorsese works best when exploring moral ambiguity, and two scenes in the film illustrate this best. The first is when Stratton Oakmont takes its first company public, and Belfort rallies his troops like a king on a battlefield, sheer testosterone coursing through every fiber of his being. In the second scene, Belfort takes to the mic on a more somber note, and for a brief moment, you can see the horribly misguided, but all too real human being laying himself bare, just before the wolf comes snarling back once more.


~ by romancinema on December 31, 2013.

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