Directed by: Martin Scorsese.
Written by: Terence Winter based on the book by Jordan Belfort.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jordan Belfort), Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff), Margot Robbie (Naomi Lapaglia), Matthew McConaughey (Mark Hanna), Kyle Chandler (Agent Patrick Denham), Rob Reiner (Max Belfort), Jon Bernthal (Brad), Jon Favreau (Manny Riskin), Jean Dujardin (Jean Jacques Saurel), Joanna Lumley (Aunt Emma), Cristin Milioti (Teresa Petrillo), Christine Ebersole (Leah Belfort), Shea Whigham (Captain Ted Beecham), Katarina Cas (Chantalle), P.J. Byrne (Nicky Koskoff ('Rugrat')), Kenneth Choi (Chester Ming), Brian Sacca (Robbie Feinberg ('Pinhead')), Henry Zebrowski (Alden Kupferberg ('Sea Otter'), Ethan Suplee (Toby Welch), Barry Rothbart (Peter DeBlasio), Jake Hoffman (Steve Madden), Mackenzie Meehan (Hildy Azoff), Spike Jonze (Dwayne).
Some critics always seem to dub a given cinematic year as the “Year of…” – like biopics, or musicals, etc. While in general I find this kind of silly, for 2013 there is no denying there were a number of films about people who pretty much want to steal the American dream. Whether it was Harmony Korine’s characters who want to be on Spring Breaker forever, or Michael Bay’s muscle bound lunk heads stealing and killing their way to money or Sofia Coppola’s already affluent teenagers who wanted even more or David O. Russell’s conmen (and women), 2013 was full of characters who want to be rich and live like a rock star, but didn’t want to put in any of the work to get it. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is the last, and best of these movies. It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, who heads to Wall Street in order to become rich and powerful – first at an old school firm, where he learns that everyone just wants to get money for themselves, screw the clients, and eventually he strikes out on his own. He makes his money selling worthless penny stocks – first to any sucker who will buy from him, and then gradually working his way up to bigger fish. He and his company make their money on commissions – it doesn’t matter what the stocks do, just that their clients buy them – and the commission on penny stock is huge. Gradually, he starts coming up with more and more elaborate – and illegal – schemes to make money. His company is little more than a frat house – where Belfort and his cronies drink, do drugs, hire prostitutes, ostracize anyone who doesn’t fit in, and essentially behave like assholes 24/7. For a short time, they are living the American Dream.
In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street is a throwback for Scorsese. Since 2002’s Gangs of New York, Scorsese has become a more mainstream filmmaker than he has been at any other point of his career. This is not necessarily a bad thing - Gangs, The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010) and Hugo (2011) are all wonderful films – but none of them generated the type of controversy and harshly divided critical opinions of his earlier films. Now in his 70s, some feared (or felt he already had) Scorsese would become complacent – happy with his status as a Hollywood insider that he never enjoyed before (he received more Oscar nominations – and his first win in the 10 years since 2002 than he did in more than 30 years previously). The Wolf of Wall Street should put those fears to bed. This is a comedy to be sure – but it is a tough, deeply cynical and disturbing one. Some people hate it – they think that the film somehow endorses the behavior that is put on screen for nearly three hours of runtime. I think that’s a rather strange opinion given many of the scenes we see in the film – the shaving of a female underling’s head, a seemingly throwaway story Belfort tells in voice over that ends with someone else’s suicide, which is the single most disturbing image in the film, the plane crash caused by Belfort’s greed, a conversation about “midgets” that goes on so long it goes from funny to downright creepy, Belfort all but raping his second wife, the virtuoso sequence of Belfort high on Quaaludes trying to get back to his house – and many other examples. These are disturbing sequences. Yes, they are also funny and entertaining and it is true that Scorsese is not a scold who judges his characters – he just puts their behavior onscreen, and allows the audience to do that. Some assholes will probably want to be Jordan Belfort – just like idiots want to be Scarface – yet Scorsese even addresses this in a sequence where Belfort is upset at what he considers to be a hatchet job on him in Forbes magazine (although it is true) – then shows up to work only to discover that he and his firm are more popular than ever before. It’s also true that Belfort never really pays that much for his crimes – yet that part is based on fact, and if you watch American Greed as much as I do, you know that the type of punishment he got is not the exception, but the rule for these kinds of corporate crime. In short, Scorsese is not celebrating the people in his movie – America is.
The two Scorsese films The Wolf of Wall Street most resembles are his two 1990s gangster epics – GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995) – two other films that use a near constant voiceover to allow amoral characters to explain precisely what they did and why they did it. The film is less overtly violent than either of those films – but probably more disturbing because of just how crash, misogynistic and homophobic the characters are (please note, I don’t think the movie is any of those things – there is a distinction between showing this behavior and endorsing it that some people fail to make). But the message is basically the same – these people are criminals, who destroy people’s lives. The difference is that the people in The Wolf of Wall Street don’t really pay for their crimes – they are part of a powerful system that fights regulation and floats their power, and get away with it.
The film doesn’t quite have the breakneck pacing of some of Scorsese’s other films – but I think that is by design this time around. The aforementioned scene with the group of men talking about the “midgets” they are bringing in to entertain is a perfect example of precisely why Scorsese needs the time The Wolf of Wall Street takes. A scene like that at two minutes is tighter – yes – but would also be almost exclusively a comedic one. Here, the scene stretches on and on, and as it goes along, you become increasingly uncomfortable in the audience watching the men’s behavior. The Wolf of Wall Street at a mere two hours may well be the film many of its detractors claim it to be – a glamorization of amoral behavior – but because Scorsese takes the time he does, the film makes the audience stew in this horrid behavior, and see it for what it really is.
The performances in the movie are universally wonderful. Leonardo DiCaprio is now almost as tied to Scorsese as Robert DeNiro once was (it’s his fifth with Scorsese – DeNiro’s at eight) and this is the ballsiest performance of his career. There is nothing really subtle about what he does here – he plays an amoral man celebrating his own amorality. Unlike many movie stars, DiCaprio doesn’t seem to care about protecting his image – about playing heroic characters. He dives headlong into this character, and creates one of the most interesting characters of the year. Jonah Hill isn’t quite given the same levels to play as DiCaprio is, but he’s also brilliant as his right hand man Donnie Azoff, who is as big of an asshole as Jordan is, but nearly as charming – but once again, there is not an ounce of vanity in this performance. Margot Robbie is great as Belfort’s second wife – a woman is pretty much a trophy wife and makes no secret about it (her devastating final line of the performance – “You married me” lays herself bare, and crushes Belfort). Matthew McConaughey may only have one great scene in the early going of the film – but it’s almost Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross level of brilliance – he lays the ground rules the rest of the film follows. Everyone else in the film is great as well – especially Kyle Chandler as a FBI agent and Rob Reiner as Belfort’s raging father.
The star of the show really is Scorsese though – who at 71 shows that he isn’t interested in resting on his laurels. The film has generated the kind of controversy that no film of his in nearly 20 years has. It’s a balls to the wall film that Scorsese pulls off brilliantly. It’s easily one of the best films of the year.