Review of “The Wolf of Wall Street”
By Vincent Abbatecola
One of the main things about Martin Scorsese that I admire is his ability to make the audience become attracted to characters who might not be your typical “good guys,” like gangster Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy” and Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” These are some characters who have major flaws, yet, we find ourselves rooting for them.
Now, Scorsese brings us what is probably his most unconventional protagonist with Wall Street legend Jordan Belfort. In his new dark comedy, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which is based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name, Scorsese recounts the events of Belfort’s life as he goes from an eager rookie to an empirical leader in the financial world. It’s not only another achievement in Scorsese’s reliably masterful filmmaking, but an invitation to see what’s it’s like to party with the big leagues for a little while, including all its excess.
In 1987, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes a stockbroker on Wall Street, and is soon drawn into its world with all of its perks and pitfalls. When the firm he works for goes under after Black Monday, Belfort is desperate to continue working. He then begins a job selling penny stocks, and his talent for selling earns him bucks and, more importantly, a following.
He soon meets Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a salesman who is looking for something different. The two pair up, hire other potential workers, and start their own firm, Stratton Oakmont. As their firm becomes bigger, so do the rewards. Belfort starts to sink deeper into a world of sex, money and illegal financial activity. With these many vices surrounding him and the feds beginning to catch onto his game, Belfort’s life is at risk of unraveling around him.
Leonardo DiCaprio, as the morally bankrupt antihero, plays his wildest role to date as the wolf who gnashes his teeth in pursuit of his greed. It’s really something to watch his character go from an amateur stockbroker to the leader of his own firm rather quickly, and his portrayal of the character through these phases in his life shows why he’s one of the most gifted actors working today. DiCaprio presents someone who quickly arrives from humble beginnings to behavior that is off-the-charts crazy, behavior that weirdly draws the audience to him, but has it worry for him at the same time.
This is DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese, and it’s absolutely stunning how much power the director can get out of the actor’s performances, and that power is used to make this DiCaprio’s movie. He is unhinged and unapologetic in his actions because he’s a man who has it all and takes what he can get, and the speeches he makes to his firm, especially, make for a grand performance. Whenever he was onscreen, I was thinking to myself, “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar.”
Scorsese has also managed to submerge certain actors in a new light. In this case, he does it with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey only shows up for one big scene in the film’s first 15 minutes, but still manages to make his character interesting.
As Belfort’s fast-talking boss who takes him under his tutelage, he doesn’t seem to be quite all there in the head, but seduces Belfort, as well as the audience, into the financial world, like a devil with dollar signs in his eyes and drugs in his veins. With the year McConaughey has had with this film, “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Mud,” his rom-com leading-man typecasting has shattered.
Jonah Hill, as a sleazy salesman who is also new to the Wall Street scene, is as funny as he usually is, and he’s able to make his humor work, even while in a more serious atmosphere, as he exemplified in “Moneyball.”
The screenplay by Terence Winter carries the weight of a protracted narrative, and although certain scenes seem redundant or longer than they should be, most of the length can be beneficial in order to flesh out the extent and damage of Belfort’s financial crimes. After some time on American soil, the film opens another interesting side in international finance as Belfort begins to create off-shore accounts, and this helps to strengthen the financial aspects of the story.
Being a character study on Belfort and the many connections he has to less-than-reputable people, the film is heavily reliant on dialogue. In a lunch scene between DiCaprio and McConaughey, the screenplay reminded me of something Aaron Sorkin would write because of how meaty the discussions are and how easy it was to give myself over to the characters’ conversation.
Similar to other screenplays that Scorsese directs, the story has some parts narrated by the main character, just like the damaged characters of Henry Hill and Travis Bickle. The fact that we’re getting into the heads of these not-quite-right individuals allows us to gain a fascinating insight into people who don’t have much regard for what is right and what is wrong.
The sex and drugs do become a bit unrestrained at times. I get that it’s a film about American excessiveness in the lives of Wall Street gurus, but a few scenes regarding these vices could have been cut short, and some smaller scenes could have been cut altogether without damaging the impact of the story’s theme. The depiction of drug use could almost have this movie compete with that of “Requiem for a Dream.”
Although Scorsese is in his seventies, he directs this film with the energy of a frat boy who wants to have the biggest bash on campus, or in movie theaters, in this case. Scorsese’s fast-paced direction makes the hours fly by, and he has the ability to draw audiences into realistic worlds that would normally be undesirable to visit.
Other than DiCaprio, this is Scorsese’s first time collaborating with many of the actors in the film’s cast, and you can just about imagine them working with him again because of how well they fit with his direction. Years ago, I would never have expected actors like McConaughey and Hill to work with Scorsese, but they show that they belong in the vision of a daring and imaginative filmmaker.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” lets audiences know that Scorsese is still on the money with what he can contribute to cinema.