“The Wolf of Wall Street” Review
The Wolf of Wall Street is a dangerous film. Remarkable, but dangerous. Martin Scorsese has crafted a film full of vigor and bravado. It is a movie that oozes confidence as much as it does sleaze. The Wolf Of Wall Street is exceptional filmmaking from exceptionally talented folk. However, it is so slickly made that I fear it may encourage the very behavior it seeks to indict.
Based on the memoirs by the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of a scumbag named Jordan Belfort. This amoral asshole was a stockbroker who lied, cheated, stole, and manipulated his way into incredible wealth. As he describes in the opening monologue, he’s a former member of the middle class – a distinction he was so eager to leave behind. Like so many men before him, Belfort isn’t interested in toiling for his deserved wealth, he wants it fast, so to Wall Street he goes. He arrives wide-eyed and laughably naive. It’s not long before he’s coached into a lifestyle of sex and drugs, because that is the only way to handle this job. He is transformed into a man who exists only to fulfill his addictive appetites, with one crowning desire: money. He accrues as much wealth as he can by scamming thousands of investors out of their own money. At least, Belfort tells us, he knows how to spend it better.
The Wolf of Wall Street plays out like a feverish dream as it speeds along from scene to scene, never losing momentum for a second. All the while DiCaprio’s brilliantly performed version of Belfort brags in voice over, and occasionally directly to us as he looks straight through the lens. Belfort doesn’t follow the rules of investment banking, why should he follow the rules of conventional cinema?
At times the film feels like it is on a never ending quest to outdo itself – much like Belfort himself – in either absurdity or depravity. I’m fairly certain you more often see women naked than with their clothes on. The depictions of sex are as perverse as they are numerous. These are men who treat women like the stocks they trade: disposable and worthless, only useful as a means to increase their own status. Then there are the drugs. So many drugs. Belfort brags to us that he imbibes enough narcotics and stimulants daily to lay out the island of Manhattan for a whole week. Scorsese goes to great lengths to show us these men in deeper and deep states of delirium.
Perhaps the best example of this is a sequence roughly halfway through the film (honestly I have no idea, at an engrossing three hour length, it’s hard to judge). Belfort and his cohort, Donnie Azoff, take multiple quaaludes that are about fifteen years old. These already exceptionally potent drugs have only grown more powerful during their slumber. By the time they kick in, Belfort is dissolved into a drooling mess. Belfort associates the sensation with cerebral palsy, though, how would he know? Belfort loses almost all motor function, but he desperately needs to get home, so he crawls to his Ferrari. The sequence is brilliant physical comedy that plays with perspective to hilarious effect. DiCaprio’s dedication is phenomenal. However, amidst the laughter it becomes clear: we’re seeing Belfort reduced to his truest form. This man has portioned off his soul so many times and in so many disgraceful ways that he’s been left a wretched thing.
That seems to be the film in somewhat of a nutshell. It is a cocktail of humor and shame, intent of making us laugh, while highlighting the disgraceful manner in which these men led their lives. The Wolf of Wall Street is satire, pure and simple. The purpose of satire is to shame its subject through comedy into improvement. The behavior we pay witness to in The Wolf of Wall Street is never glorified, but unrelentingly depicted in an effort to shame these criminals. Scorsese goes a step further, however, and he seems to indict society was well. Film Crit Hulk has described the movie as a mirror, showing us ourselves and how we accept Belfort and his brethren. The assessment feels spot on to me. Pay close attention to that final shot, it says everything.
There’s another scene that overtly plays into the film’s satirical nature. Belfort invites the FBI agent investigating his company onboard his ludicrously huge yacht in an effort to buy him off. Agent Patrick Denham is played brilliantly by Kyle Chandler. DiCaprio will deserve every award and nomination he receives for his work here, but if there is no recognition for Chandler, then there is no justice in Hollywood. Chandler is able to exude confidence and intelligence that DiCaprio’s Belfort can hardly hope to match. Despite Belfort’s self obsession and yacht sized ego, he is deftly outsmarted by Denham in a tight, surprisingly tense and funny scene. Again Belfort’s true form is revealed to us: a hapless moron who has only gotten where he is by luck and the blindness of society. Whereas Denham, the honest and smart one, is left with a pittance of a salary while he rides the F train home. At least his conscience is clean. Though, that would only matter if Belfort had a conscience.
In the end, despite its exceptional craft and intent, The Wolf of Wall Street is a dangerous film. It will spawn hundreds, if not thousands, of Belfort wannabes. Assholes who watch the movies and think that this looks like a good life. They will believe that sleeping with countless hookers, not going a day sober, and stealing from the public are achievements to which to aspire. And why? Because the film flat out refuses to openly moralize its characters. Sure, Belfort went to prison, but it was basically a country club, and he got off early for being a snitch. Imprisoned, but not punished. We as a society did not penalize him and his ilk, so why should the film? Again, I repeat Hulk’s brilliant assessment: think of the film as a mirror.
There has been quite the uproar across the internet and the press regarding The Wolf of Wall Street. There are many who are convinced that Scorsese and DiCaprio are celebrating these men and glorifying their achievements. Which speaks to how this movie is dangerous – people are misunderstanding its intent.
Despite its dangerous nature, The Wolf of Wall Street is a remarkable movie, and an important one. Martin Scorsese exhibits an alarmingly deep understanding of the nature of temptation and evil and is able to pair it with worthwhile social commentary. On top of that, the film is possibly the most confidently directed picture I’ve ever seen, full of bravado and exemplary acting. It can be a tough watch, but it’s worth it.