A film review by Craig J. Koban January 3, 2014 

RANK:  #2

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET jjjj
 

2013, R, 179 mins.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort  /  Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff  /  Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna  /  Jon Bernthal as Brad  /  Jon Favreau as Manny Riskin  /  Cristin Milioti as Teresa Petrillo  /  Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham  /  Ethan Suplee as Toby Welch  /  Spike Jonze as Dwayne  /  Rob Reiner as Max Belfort  /  Jean Dujardin as Jean-Jacques Handali  /  Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia

Directed by Martin Scorsese  /  Written by Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort

If THE WOLF OF WALL STREET proves anything it’s that Martin Scorsese, at a ripe 71-years-old, has not missed a creative beat, especially at a time during his tenure as a director when most others are calling it a career.  

It also marks the fifth movie collaboration between the director and star Leonardo DiCaprio, and nothing in those past superlative team-ups – many of which made my Top 10 Films lists of their respective years – will prepare you for the unabashed lunacy of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.  This just may be the most unusual and – for lack of a better phrase – ape-shit crazy film of Scorsese’s eclectic career.  A three-hour long scathing black comedy feature a parade of grotesquely loathsome business cretins may not seem like everyone’s idea of a “good time” at the movies, but Scorsese injects so much dazzling energy and rapturous style into the proceedings that it’s impossible to look away.  By the time the credits roll, you are left almost wanting more. 

Scorsese’s newest effort has been attacked for irresponsibly glamorizing deeply immoral men and the affluent lifestyles they lead as a financial result of hustling their victims.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is about opening up a window to its depiction of the wanton narcissism and material excesses of its late 1980’s characters.  It's also relentless in showing how one hard-working family man can devolve down a rabbit hole of insatiable gluttony when the pursuit of riches becomes the only goal worth pursing.  Scorsese’s film is mercilessly savage with showing the lurid debauchery that permeates these crooks’ lives, but little effort is made to hold these appalling douchebags up to hero worship.  Kind of akin to AMERICAN PSYCHO – another film about Reagan-era yuppie/playboys that believe in the Gordon Gekko ideal of “Greed is good” – THE WOLF OF WALL STREET exposes the shamelessly disgusting mindsets of its personas with a dark and cynical comic edge.  

The film, alas, is taken from the reality-based story of Jordan Belfort and his book, although changes here and there have been made to transform his story into a frenetic and madcap comedy of ill behavior.  DiCaprio – arguably at his most wildly and infectious unhinged – plays Jordan, whom began his career in 1987 as a somewhat naive and idealistic stock broker, but when he arrives for his first day on the job Black Monday occurs, sending the market into its biggest freefall since the Great Depression.  Desperate for work, Jordan takes a demeaning job selling penny stocks to hapless and confused middle income families that don’t know any better, but he’s such a maestro at the art of a sale that his success begins to catch the attention of his co-workers.  Realizing that he as stumbled on to something highly lucrative, Jordan gathers together a posse of his finest coworkers at begins his own brokerage firm in Long Island, dubbed Stratton Oakmont, in order to take his skills to the next level. 

 

 

Within no time, Jordan – with the assistance of his new right-hand man and BFF, Donnie (an eerily slimy and effective Jonah Hill) – takes his new firm to limitless heights of financial success, leaving both him and his workers becoming unfathomably rich in the process.  Eventually, Jordan dumps his loving wife and shacks up with blonde bombshell lingerie designer, Naomi (a sultry and snarky Margot Robbie), and each day becomes a new raunchy endeavor of spending money, habitually abusing alcohol and drugs (Quaaludes in any form are his favorite), and living a lifestyle of completely hedonistic pleasures.  However, Jordan’s antics begin to catch the eyes of the feds, and one in particular, Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), will stop at nothing to ensure that this insufferable business criminal will be brought to justice, but at just the right time. 

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is – if you excuse Chandler’s crusading agent - a film with virtually no heroes, per se, to latch on to and root for.  At its core, Jordan and his cronies are all obscenely corrupt and unsympathetic jerks.  Yet, the miracle of Scorsese’s film – with a pitch perfectly delineated screenplay by Terence Winter – is just how entreatingly macabre and infectiously hysterical the film becomes as we bare witness to these men blowing their earnings on drugs, yachts, cars, hookers, orgies, and expensive getaways, all without a care in the world as to what the future may hold.  Much akin to the gangsters that populated GOODFELLAS, the characters in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET think that they are above the law, feeling invincible from any type of persecution.  Yet, by comparison, the mafia in Scorsese’s 1990 film at least had a self-imposed code of honor of not betraying each other, whereas the stock broker fiends in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET are almost more animalistic two-faced: they will screw anyone – including loved ones – to make a buck.  Jordan seems almost more tyrannically nefarious than Henry Hill ever was. 

DiCaprio might be the greatest living actor to have never won an Oscar, and he has certainly given so many endlessly memorable and varied performances in past films with Scorsese.  As Jordan, the actor reaches all new levels performance commitment and audaciousness, fully allowing himself to immerse himself into this soulless man who spends a majority of the film venomously screaming, spitting, and sanctimoniously smirking to the tune of his own self-importance.  It has been said that he is broad and over the top, which is true, but it serves the needs to the equally rambunctious spirit of this black comedy: DiCaprio has not been so manically untamed and sickeningly charismatic in his career.  Two other performances stand out as well, like Jonah Hill’s – sporting obtrusively bright white teeth, thick rimmed glasses, and a sinister (yet side-splitting) emotional detachment - is marvelous as Jordan’s drug-addicted buddy in crime.  The other is from Matthew McConaughey, appearing in just a few scant scenes, who shows up early in the film to ensnare the initially inexperienced and innocent Jordan over to the dark side of business ethics with a speech over lunch that is perhaps the film’s cold-hearted epicenter.  

Yet, for as unsavory as this whole film is, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET becomes more engagingly amusing the longer it progresses.  Not only does Scorsese capture the twisted decadence of Jordan’s life, but also he crafts sequences that are masterfully comedic at the expense of these twisted souls.  One sequence is unforgettable, as Jordan – accidentally overdosing on new batch of powerful Quaaludes – suffers paralysis and is forced to literally crawl to his Lamborghini and drive home during one panic-driven moment that has to be seen to be believed (DiCaprio gives a physical performance for the ages here).  Again, Scorsese is not reveling or championing Jordan’s increasingly erratic and repugnant behavior; rather, he’s contemptuously laughing at scumbags like him by showing them at their absolute worst when they hit rock bottom.  The director invites us to laugh with him at these chemically dependent and redemption-free losers. 

Jordan Belfort didn’t get away from the law, as he was eventually indicted in 1998 for money laundering and securities fraud, for which he spent two years in jail and was forced to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars back to the investors he swindled.  Yet, he emerged from prison, exasperatingly so, as a financially well-off motivational speaker that – during the film’s bone chilling final scene - asks his salivating-for-tutelage audience what they would say to sell him…a pen.  When a few hapless audience members fail at the task, Jordan takes over and begins to give his guidance, all to the watchful eyes of the clamoring crowd of would-be powerful salesman whom all, like Jordan before, will do anything – or listen to any advice – to achieve financial success via any means necessary.  And Jordan, always the con man, knows that he’s got ‘em.  Right from its very humble beginnings to its bitterly nasty end, Scorsese has also got us hooked into the sordid and chaotic world of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET with the tenacity of a master that hasn’t lost what made him one of the greatest of all directors.   

  H O M E