At one point in the second act of Martin Scorsese’s decadently over-the-top tale of American greed and its many victims, Jonah Hill wryly comments, “Luckily, we’re in first class,” after a particularly bad international flight made worse by the drugged out behavior of his traveling companion (who will end up getting away with his illegal activities in the sky). His commentary, as the second in command to Wall Street’s Forbes-professed “wolf,” is shockingly prescient – an ungodly amount of wrongdoing is made a-okay (and sort of legal!) simply by virtue of the fact that it has been perpetrated by the kind of people who can afford airplane seats that recline all the way back. In many ways, that’s the message that The Wolf of Wall Street seeks to impart on audiences: if you are rich, your transgressions are just fine, at least in the good old U.S. of A.
In Scorsese’s jaw-dropping and fact-based tale, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as real-life Wall Street winner Jordan Belfort, a common kind of kid who breaks into the rarefied world of big city bankers and brokers and never looks back. Based on Belfort’s biography of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street charts the Queens native’s shocking rise to financial glory (and, yes, his big time fall), all thanks to the oldest story in the book, one that centers on the insurmountable issues so easily associated with deep, unbending grief. Money, it seems, cannot buy happiness – or, if it can, it can only do so for a limited amount of time. You know, before the feds bust in.
DiCaprio stars in the film as the smartass Belfort, a plucky kid who first hits the screen as a wide-eyed neophyte in need of both a career and some kind of guidance, and one who finds it thanks to both Wall Street at large and Matthew McConaughey’s Mark Hanna (gleefully drug-jammed and wildly hammy, all in the best ways) in particular. Jordan finds his way, it seems, care of Hanna’s outsized personality and his wild-eyed take on the world of Wall Street (read: he does a lot of drugs). After a few months in Hanna’s den, Jordan is a changed man, and a world without crazed financial trades and big money deals simply doesn’t exist for him.
After the stock market crash in the late eighties, Jordan is thrust into unfamiliar territory – the kind without big money whammies – and he claws his way back to the top in a way that is both wildly inspirational and wholly unhealthy. Scorsese’s raucous, booze-soaked, and actually-maybe-really insane tale is steeped in both bad deeds and bad decisions, and its bold take on the hyperrealism that accompanies such a lifestyle is immensely watchable, even as it is also wildly unsatisfying and emotionally empty. If nothing else, the film is worth watching for its long takes on both Quaalude consumption and yacht-crashing (Scorsese still excels at sequences of such immense decadence that it’s hard to imagine anyone else putting them on screen with such personal, signature style).
DiCaprio, as ever, excels at portraying recreational revelry in the most bold and brave terms. Jordan is by no means a sympathetic character, but DiCaprio is so imminently watchable that it is actually hard to turn away from his work here. The film is rounded out with a number of big (no, really, just big) set pieces, including an entire sequence rooted around a bad trip (a drug trip, you guys, not a real trip) and a bad trip (a real trip, you guys, with a boat and everything), and DiCaprio is riveting in all of them. The Wolf of Wall Street is his film, undoubtedly, and DiCaprio never makes that less than crystal clear.
The film does, however, falter when it tries to humanize Jordan and fill him out emotionally – his great works are tearfully voiced by a grateful employee, he attempts to reward a jailed pal with a big party – but even when Scorsese is sharing Jordan’s generosity with us, it’s rooted in the one thing Jordan truly cares about: money. DiCaprio may be great, but Jordan is not, and when The Wolf of Wall Street forgets that, the entire thing starts to slowly crumble under its own weight.
DiCaprio may excel at looking as if he’s having the time of his life while surrounded by drinking, drugs, and debauchery (and, good God, there is so much of that in this film), but even in this year’s lesser Leo-starring party boy performance, as Jay Gatsby in Baez Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, the actor harnessed actual emotion amidst the uproar. While the film is based on Belfort’s real life (and his memoir on the subject), certain elements have been added in, so it’s unfortunate that Scorsese and company did not also layer in at least a dash of believable humanity to the man.
On one hand, however, the film works quite well at steeping its audience in American greed of the highest order (the kind not necessarily worth aspiring to, especially when hard times hit Belfort, well, hard), but it veers off that straight-to-hell course when Belfort attempts to go on the straight and narrow. The film has reportedly been cut down from its original cut, and it seems highly probable that a number of trims came in the third act, when Jordan tries to change his wicked ways in a whiplash-inducing turnaround.
The performances in The Wolf of Wall Street are, however, a tremendous highlight – absolutely everyone brings their A game to this one. Co-star Margot Robbie, tasked with what could be a throwaway supporting role as Jordan’s second wife as ditzy golddigger Naomi, is instead flinty, funny, and strong. Also excelling is Christina Milioti as Jordan’s first wife, Teresa, who is both amusing and heartbreaking (interestingly, it’s actually Teresa who inspires two of Jordan’s most important decisions – to apply for a job at the flimsy penny stock joint and to eventually go after high profile clients for his junk offerings).
Jonah Hill quite notably lives up to his actorial promise as Jordan’s eventual right-hand man, Donnie Azoff, a funny, strange, wacky, and weirdly emotive geek who ascends to the highest stratosphere of wealth without grasping basic manners. DiCaprio and Hill are, quite possibly, cinematic magic, and any film starring the duo gets an instant recommendation, at least by virtue of their undeniable chemistry.
The Wolf of Wall Street is big, bold filmmaking, but Scorsese and company stop just short of making things feel bruising and fully realized, instead delivering a spectacle devoid of much redeeming emotional value, a drug to numb the pain, not a morning after to sober things up.
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