‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Review
'The Wolf of Wall Street,' Martin Scorsese's most dynamic and spry film since 'GoodFellas,' is an up close and personal tour of a snarling den of unchecked depravity. Really, theaters should be handing out bottles of Purel with the tickets. What begins as jovial bad behavior spirals out into an excess and deviance rarely shown on the screen. And while the idea is to cluck your tongue (“these people are so gross!”) the truth is that with the lights dimmed it's just you and your id.
Do the sex, drugs and sports cars look a little bit enticing? What about the yachts and $10,000 suits? Or, really, the type of power and access that comes from “real money,” from, as it's sometimes called, “eff you money,” the type of money that doesn't just buy things but buys infallibility?
Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, at a personal best) is just another kid with dreams and a silver tongue when he comes to Wall Street. It's an environment that celebrates those who are sharp enough to screw over dumb people. That's the secret of 'The Wolf of Wall Street,' that's what's repeated over and over again for its three-hour running time. Drop your guard for a second and there is someone looking to take advantage. Yeah, it's a little bit your fault if you let some disembodied voice convince you to sink five grand into a worthless stock, but what kind of world do we live in where it isn't just legal but celebrated when someone successfully preys on someone else's naivete?
In Terence Winter's screenplay (very much stylized in the 'GoodFellas' model) DiCaprio's Belfort and his crew are seen riding capitalism's natural, logical wave. Too much is never enough, and it only makes sense to try new schemes. Eventually the cut corners turn into full-borne illegalities. Eventually, Belfort's house comes crumbling down ... but, not really. He loses his trading license, loses his money, but has he lost his prestige? To a certain breed of cat, absolutely not. As seen in the film, when Forbes does a hit piece on him and his trashy style of business, he's dubbed “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The next day every hungry young broker in town is banging down his door looking for work.
More to the point, the real-life Belfort is now the subject of a major Hollywood film! When you think about this movie outside of entertainment, he is a reprehensible human being. But as a character, it is, for much of the running time, just a great deal of fun. Anyone who tells you differently is lying.
Winter and Scorsese don't let you get too comfortable. The treatment of women in the movie is shocking – but it blazes by so quickly that it's hard to read the nude bimbos as anything other than props. Then there's a dark scene in the film (on a flight to that great symbol of derelict responsibility, Switzerland) where drugged-out behavior goes way over the line into sexual harassment. Wisely, Scorsese treats it just like any other sequence. As such, it is quite disturbing. “Wait a minute,” you ask yourself. “Just how much of what I've been chuckling at earlier was this immoral?”
That chuckling is key. Winter's script isn't just shocking – it is hilarious. It may have more quality zings than anything else on Scorsese's resume, plus it has top-notch performances from the likes of Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner and a number of other, lesser-known actors who knock it out of the park. And while he's really got just a few minutes of screen time, Matthew McConaughey is golden as DiCaprio's early mentor. It may be the most memorable early spotlight scene since Alec Baldwin in 'Glengarry Glen Ross.'
DiCaprio and Hill have some outrageous moments of physical comedy together, too. Indeed, the movie basically puts itself on pause for a drug-fueled battle royale sequence that is unlike anything, really, since the alley fight in 'They Live.' It's indicative of the “anything goes” nature of this film – from shocking lewdness (and it's lewd!) to the slam-the-brakes darkness of the airplane scene.
Some may feel that, like 'GoodFellas,' there's no real point to this movie: a bunch of bad guys acting bad. I say you don't have to look too deep for meaning. Not everyone in this environment was born evil – but they eased into it, just as how the comedy of the film gets you to where you are laughing at rancid, unpleasant behavior. This culture of applauded excess exists, and it isn't even hidden like the Mafia's. And what's truly shocking is just how easy it is to portray it as being really fun.
'The Wolf of Wall Street' opens in theaters on December 25.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.