The Wolf of Wall Street
Release Date: December 25, 2013
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
MPAA Rating: R
The Wolf of Wall Street shouldn’t work as a film. Sure, we all have come to embrace and love anti-heroes thanks to Martin Scorsese’s earlier films like Goodfellas and television shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. But a film about a bunch of amoral Wall Street bankers – the people who nearly bankrupted this country, something we are all still recovering from – based on an autobiography by the head scumbag in charge, should be repulsive and impossible to sell.
Yet somehow, Martin Scorsese makes it work. By the end of the opening scene, I had a huge smile on my face. There’s something about just how unrepentantly greedy the titular character Jordan “The Wolf of Wall Street” Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and just how much fun he has with the money that makes it utterly captivating in a slow motion car wreck sort of way.
The opening scene is a decadent, obscene office party with so much excess that it would make a Roman emperor blush. Belfort and his crew toss little people covered in velcro at a target to see who can get the closest to the bull’s eye. There are more hookers and drugs than the eye can see. And this party isn’t atypical. It’s par for the course.
There are in-depth discussions about the three different levels of hookers that one can buy and the many benefits and risks of taking Quaaludes. Belfort discusses all of these vices in a cavalier, straight forward manner, as if he was describing courses at a fancy restaurant. Disappointingly though, Scorsese chooses to yada-yada the moments when Belfort is going into detail about his more elaborate money making schemes, having the character brush it off by saying the particulars don’t matter, all that matters is that they made a ton of cash. Personally, I would have liked more exposition.
The film tells the story of Belfort’s rise and fall in the world of stocks. He starts out at a big firm dialing the phone for the senior brokers. He’s wide eyed and optimistic, but one of the big wigs – Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, still looking rail thin from his role in Dallas Buyers Club) – takes him out to lunch and basically explains that people are cattle and its their job to relieve those people of every last dollar they own. And Belfort takes that advice to heart.
The company goes under, however, and Belfort finds himself unemployed and forced to take a job selling “penny stocks” to regular people looking to do a little harmless trading. It’s at this strip mall brokerage firm that Belfort hatches a plan to trick high rollers into buying these worthless stocks, which pay much higher commissions. This becomes the basis of his empire and begins him on his rise to infamy.
Along the way he meets the equally-ambitious Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who becomes his lieutenant. Donnie is a bizarre character with ridiculous teeth and a disturbing love life. He’s a bit all over the map tonally, but Donnie has a surprising amount of heart and he also provides quite a lot of comic relief.
It’s surprising just how funny the film is. It’s very much a spiritual successor to Goodfellas, so you wouldn’t expect it to play out like a broad comedy and yet it is filled with laugh out loud moments. There is one scene where Belfort takes too many Quaaludes as he’s impatiently waiting for the drugs to kick in and then has to drive his car after they start taking effect that is absolutely hilarious. DiCaprio’s physical comedy skills in that scene are amazing.
Of course, as funny and as unrepentant as the film is in the opening two-thirds, it (rightfully) takes an abrupt turn in mood as Belfort’s bubble begins to burst. The final act is appropriately dark and tragic.
Watching this film, you really are seeing a master at his best. Martin Scorsese continues to change with the times and to deliver amazing cinema that feels edgy and relevant and The Wolf of Wall Street instantly stands equal with his other greats like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Casino and Gangs of New York.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.