Wolf of Wall Street, The (United States, 2013)

December 24, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Wolf of Wall Street, The Poster

When one thinks of a Martin Scorsese film, the first images that come to mind are dark, violent, serious ones. His most celebrated movies are Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Departed - all intense, uncompromising samples of cinema at its finest. Scorsese, however, has never been easy to pigeonhole; he has always enjoyed playing in unconventional sandboxes. Some may recall that he followed up Casino with Kundun, that he entered Merchant-Ivory territory with The Age of Innocence, or that he predated the Coen Brothers in surreal comedy with After Hours. Scorsese is about far more than mobsters, De Niro, Pesci, and profanity-laden tirades. Nowhere is this more evident that in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The Wolf of Wall Street joins After Hours as the most openly comedic films Scorsese has made. The movie isn't a nonstop treadmill of jokes and gags; instead, the blackly humorous elements are incorporated into a screenplay that questions the "get rich" mentality that has always infected Wall Street. Although an indictment of greed, the movie establishes the anti-hero, in this case Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), as a quasi-sympathetic figure. Viewed objectively, Belfort - a materialistic, drug-addicted, womanizing thief - is the kind of character who could easily fill the villain's role. He's the kind of white-collar criminal whose activities led to the 2008 economic melt-down and who would feel at home swapping stories with Bernie Madoff. Yet, by shaping the movie the way he does, Scorsese presents Belfort as a charismatic Caligula. He is an endlessly fascinating character who holds viewers' attention from beginning to end.

Many of Scorsese's best films have used real-life stories as their underpinning, and this is no exception. The director is quick to point out that the screenplay, credited to Terence Winter, is a fictionalization of Belfort's life and takes numerous liberties. This isn't a documentary and it's not intended to be one. As a result, Scorsese can amplify elements of Belfort's life to accentuate the comedy or the tragedy of a given situation. Although The Wolf of Wall Street features some strongly dramatic elements, many of the film's flourishes are designed for laughs.

Throughout his long career, Scorsese has been known for pushing the envelope of the MPAA's R-rating. The Wolf of Wall Street is replete with naked bodies and acts of sexual depravity. There's also copious drug use and frequent profanity but very little in the way of physical violence. This isn't that kind of story. This is about how the pursuit of money above all else can transform a hard-working family man into a kingpin of immorality and debauchery.

This is DiCaprio's fifth outing for Scorsese but the first time in which the director has turned him loose. The result is an astounding, courageous performance the likes of which we haven't yet seen from the talented actor. Throughout the movie, Belfort gives pep talks to his ever-growing flock of broker disciples. These are reminiscent of Alec Baldwin's scathing monologue at the beginning of Glengarry Glen Ross but, instead of galvanizing an audience for ten minutes, DiCaprio does it for three hours.

The Wolf of Wall Street tells the tale of Belfort's rise and fall. Parts are presented in flashback with DiCaprio providing a self-mocking voiceover. It's a rags-to-riches story about a hard-working broker who breaks into the industry in the late '80s and has the misfortune of earning his license on Black Monday, the day of the biggest crash since the '20s. He subsequently loses his job but reinvents himself as a purveyor of "penny stocks." Fraud abounds in this ill-regulated dark corner of the financial industry and Belfort rides the wave to wealth. He's able to found his own company, Stratton Oakmont, and surround himself with cronies like Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who shares his taste for quaaludes. He dumps his first wife for a hot blond, Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie). The SEC starts to notice Stratton Oakmont, but Belfort's real problems begin when FBI agent Greg Coleman (Kyle Chandler) opens a file on him.

DiCaprio's turn is ably supported by a tremendous supporting cast. Jonah Hill is creepily effective as Belfort's drug-addled sidekick. It's a part that straddles drama and dark comedy and is perfect for the actor. Matthew McConaughey, who appears in only three scenes, gives an unforgettable speech. Australian actress Margot Robbie amps up the sexual tension with a performance that's likely to expand her Hollywood profile. There are some nice turns by members of Scorsese's directing fraternity (all of whom have previous credits in front of the camera): Spike Jonze, Jon Favreau, and a brilliant Rob Reiner. The movie is littered with acting gems - some from expected sources and some that arrive out-of-the-blue.

By turning this into a comedy, Scorsese assures a different tone from Wall Street and Boiler Room. There are serious aspects to The Wolf of Wall Street but the filmmakers don't want to get caught digging in areas where the ground has already been tilled. Belfort may have the same predatory instincts as Gordon Gekko, but he's not as smart and lives a more extravagant lifestyle. In fact, one could talk at length between similarities between Belfort and DiCaprio's other 2013 character, Jay Gatsby.

I laughed more during The Wolf of Wall Street than I did during any of 2013's "pure" comedies. Maybe that's an indication that my warped sense of humor is a match for Scorsese's sensibilities. This is an example of what a supremely talented actor can do under the auspices of one of the best working directors. Some things in The Wolf of Wall Street will undoubtedly offend more sensitive movie-goers but that goes with the territory for Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street crackles with energy and justifies its length, offering three of the most riveting hours available this holiday season.

Wolf of Wall Street, The (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 3:00
U.S. Release Date: 2013-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity, Drugs, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1