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THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) review

December 28, 2013

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written by: Terence Winter

produced by: Martin Scorsese, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland & Emma Koskoff

directed by: Martin Scorsese

rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use throughout, and for some violence)

runtime: 179 min.

U.S. release date: December 25, 2013

 

Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a raucous, wild ride that follows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, who thought he could get away with anything as long as he has money to throw at it. It is one of the most intoxicating movies of the year, drenched in an unrelenting amount of sex, mansions, sports cars, drugs and a luxury yacht (with a helicopter pad), the lengthy film may be a challenging watch for some. But it offers one of the best lead performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, out of all the films he and Scorsese have worked on. It is certainly not a good gateway to those unfamiliar with one of the greatest American directors working today, but for those of you who’ve been looking forward to the latest Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration, you will not be disappointed. In fact, prepare to be wowed.

A young and ambitious New York City kid, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives on Wall Street in 1987, looking to get rich on stocks. Unfortunately, he arrives on Black Monday, a time when the Stock Market had taken its worse crash since the Great Depression. After charismatic stockbrocker Mark Hanna (a golden Matthew McConaughey) leaves an indelible mark on the wealth-obsessed Jordan, he strikes out on his own as the market slowly recovers. Restless to make his mark, Jordan takes a job pushing penny stocks, blowing away his boss (Spike Jonze) and co-workers (including Ethan Suplee) with his impressive salesmanship and soon takes that model and opens up his own brokerage firm.

 

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Employing friends he trusts and grew up with, Chester (Chester Ming), Nicky (P. J. Byrne) and Brad (Jon Bernthal), because, as he narrates, they can sell anything. He soon earns a right-hand man in the form of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), an eager self-appointed protegé, who immediately quits his job and goes to work for Jordan with the belief that he can make as much money as Jordan. And Jordan likes all of it – the attention, the increasing success his company, Stratton Oakmont as they grow in size and tear up the industry. He even gets his hot-head dad, Max (Rob Reiner), in on the action, employing him to keep on eye on their books.

As Jordan encourages an atmosphere of reprehensible behavior – allowing employees to play with hookers in the conference room, throw dwarves across the office and work while they’re high – his partying appetite for sex, cocaine and quaaludes increases as well. It’s at one such party in Miami where he meets the beautiful lingerie designer, Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), and despite her boyfriend and his wife, he hones in on her as if she’s yet another possession to buy. The two get married, even have a kid together, but it’s obvious what Jordan is really married to.

With the scamming and scheming becoming second nature, federal agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) soon begins an investigation that lasts years of monitoring the activity at Stratton Oakmont closely, waiting patiently for the arrogant Jordan to screw up. Knowing the feds are on his tail, Jordan and Donnie sends their money overseas, where a smiling Swiss Bank account manager, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin) gladly accommodates them. Anything to keep their American dream alive and maintain an intoxicating, albeit damaging lifestyle.

 

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Adapted by Terence Winter (who ironically wrote “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” as well as some “Boardwalk Empire” episodes) from Belfort’s own memoir, “The Wolf of Wall Street” follows the world of white-collar criminals as closely as Scorsese following gangsters in “Goodfellas” and “Casino”. It’s as if these morally bankrupt stockbrockers are the new Mafiosos, so it’s only fitting that Scorsese would be the one to offer his take on this corrupt culture. In a year that’s already included movies reveling in people consumed with accumulating stuff and acquiring material possessions (“Spring Breakers”, “The Bling Ring” and “American Hustle”) – many of them based on true stories – here is a three-hour opus to close out the year.

Now, on that note, I’m baffled why some viewers complain about length in movies. If it’s as excellently crafted and superbly acted as this film is, than I don’t see the problem. Yet moviegoers bemoan (even critics) and I’ve even read that in this case the studio wanted Scorsese to trim the length. I can see them wanting the director to prune the risque content for an R-rating (which is what actually happened) – but why on earth would you care how long a Scorsese film is? Sure, he’s not perfect, but his mark in movie history should earn him enough trust to allow him to do whatever he wants.

While the style and overall story arch may be familiar (especially to anyone well-versed in Scorsese’s work), one can’t argue the cinematic pizzazz Scorsese still possesses. This is his playground. Examining obsessive, incorrigible and deplorable characters without any filters, while getting viewers to laugh in disbelief at their outrageous, often comedic behavior. Whether or not you do laugh is entirely subjective been a Scorsese trait for years. He may not be showing us the violent acts of gangsters here, but in a way, the type of unapologetic and demoralizing behavior on display is even more infuriating. More people probably know folks who’ve been taken by scammers like Belfort than the do those who’ve been offed by the likes of Tommy DeVito.

With his longtime collaborators – editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Robbie Robertson managing the eclectic soundtrack, along with fantastic cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (“Argo”) – Scorsese delivers yet another absorbing theatrical experience. One that, given time, might be considered a classic. Every element comes together, with the running time never hitting a lull, for an engaging film experience. Granted, there will be people claiming Scorsese is just repeating himself here, replacing gangsters with stockbrockers (can’t they see how realistic and frightening that line of thought is?), but I have absolutely no problem with that. After all, who better to draw that parallel?

 

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What continued to enter my mind as I watched this film, is that this really happened. There may be some accentuated elements to this story to keep up with the tone that Scorsese and Winter are going for, but from what I hear, this is pretty loyal to Belfort’s memoir. Considering that, this is kind of a horror story, a madcap one with dark humor coursing through it’s toxic veins, but nevertheless, this is scary stuff.

And the guy who sells that, who conveys both an unpredictability and insecurity seething underneath his slick charm and winking smile, is DiCaprio. Looking at his work with Scorsese, not since “The Aviator” (where he also played a troubled real-life character) have we seen a film where his performance relies on carrying the tone and feel of the entire film. DiCaprio give a fearless, at-the-top-of-his-game, performance that (surprisingly) demands a lot out of the actor physically, especially in the film’s third hour, when everything really unravels for Belfort.

There are two actors though that match DiCaprio’s levels of intensity, zaniness and commitment to their roles, and that’s Hill and Robbie. It’s hard to say this is Hill’s first dramatic turn since his Oscar nominated work in “Moneyball”, since he definitely plays up the comedy, but his Donnie, who’s married to his cousin, is more out-of-control and unpredictable (therefore more frightening) than DiCaprio’s Belfort. Belfort at least tries to keep a certain amount of public composure (in fact he craves it), but if Belfort is The Wolf of Wall Street, than Donnie is the Tasmanian Devil of Wall Street. At first, Robbie’s Naomi just seems like Belfort’s acquired trophy wife, but like the standout work by Lorraine Bracco and Sharon Stone in Scorsese’s past, similar work, her work here is like a career breakthrough performance. Her character has a convincing arch – starting as one who is tantalized by the material possessions Belfort wins her over with and then going toe-to-toe with DiCaprio when their marriage turns bitter and volatile. In the end, we feel for Naomi, because as much as she’s a master manipulator with her sexual allure, she is slapped upside the head eventually with how wrong everything is.

 

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One character that was a refreshing breather from all the insanity was Chandler’s Denham. If there’s any character we can relate to, he’s the one (at least, I hope so). When his character is introduced, we’re incline to think this is the hard-nosed fed who’s gonna hound Belfort, but Chandler embodies Denham with a certain amount of patience, knowing that it’ll take calculations and methodical timing to catch Belfort in illegal activity. Chandler and DiCaprio have an excellent scene, when Belfort invites Denham on his yacht after he finds out he’s being investigating. The two try and play cool and casual during a cagey and awkward sit-down and it’s Chandler’s Denham who winds up prevailing in coolness as a hot-headed Belfort explodes.

In looking at where these two characters wind up at the film’s closure, it’s Chandler who has the most compelling scene of the film. As we see Belfort go on to become a motivational speaker Down Under, we also see Denham underground, sitting in a New York City subway car. It’s a lonely, contemplative scene that brings us back to reality and reminds us of the kind of people who Belfort’s loathsome behavior has ruined.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is an insane, relentless and excessive look at the addiction of greed, consumption and excess. With it’s lewd profanity, rampant nudity and drug use, it earns an R rating, with one foot ready to cross into NC-17. Is any of it gratuitous though? It’s all gratuitous. That’s the inevitable and inescapable conceit in looking at the highs of Jordan Belfort.

 

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RATING: ****

 

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