The Wolf of Wall Street
Spoiler Alert! Though there really aren’t many spoilers in a Martin Scorsese film.
Review by Jim Reed
The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of debauchery, boobs, drugs, people doing terrible things to each other, more boobs and more drugs… and it might be the best film of the year. Should it be rated NC-17? Probably. But it is a film of absolute brilliance. I need to preface this review by saying, 1) I don’t condone anything that happens in the film, and neither, I believe, do the filmmakers; 2) I need to see this again before I have a more fully formed opinion; 3) my opinion is very much informed by the fact that I think Martin Scorsese is hands-down the greatest filmmaker of all time; and finally 4) the first time I saw this I entered knowing I was about to sit through a three-hour movie, so that has informed my opinion to a certain extent.
This is the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, along with his business associate and best-friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), defrauded investors of hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the 1990s. For three hours we watch as our subjects gleefully make money hand-over-fist, engage in the ritualistic obscene, and unrepentantly elevate themselves by stepping on the throats of suckers. The film’s pace puts it on par with prior Scorsese works like GoodFellas (1990) and The Departed (2006), but this does not feel like a traditional Scorsese film. It does feature some stylistic close-ups and slow-motion, but it’s energy is not of the same ilk as his gangster films, which isn’t to say this film doesn’t have strong energy—it may be his most energetic film to date. Three hours of anabolic testosterone shot straight into the blood of every self-aggrandizing, pleasure-seeking, character. It is fueled by wolf’s blood and rocket ships, incapable of being brought down from the everlasting high of capital worship.
The acting is sensational. DiCaprio is as good as he’s ever been, capturing Belfort’s hedonistic fanaticism and cultic personality with furious energy. I expect DiCaprio to pick up another Oscar nomination for his work here, and while he won’t win (I think Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work in 12 Years a Slave pretty much wraps that up), it is almost certainly the most entertaining work he’s ever done. Hill is also tremendous, as his acting chops continue to improve and make me a believer in his ability to be a serious performer. It is easy to tell that everyone is having a great time telling this story, including and perhaps especially Scorsese, which makes it easy for the audience to have a great time right along with them. Part of the critical knock here is that the movie is such a relentlessly fun celebration of debauchery that if you’re not paying attention to the thematic idiosyncrasies it appears as though they truly are celebrating the excesses of unchecked hedonism. But that’s not what’s happening here.
In the film’s first ten minutes Jordan walks us through his lifestyle of excess, informing us of the numerous drugs he takes, including morphine, because its F-ing awesome. He says that the most important thing in life is money, which he calls “fun coupons,” because with it you can do whatever you want. With money, life is good; life is whole. After this, but in flashback, in a pivotal early scene, Jordan is taken to lunch by Mark Hanna (played memorably by Matthew McConaughey in his only sequence). Hanna teaches him how to survive as a stockbroker, the rituals to perform (including masturbating twice a day), and an odd chest-pounding chant that we don’t think much of at the time. It is a scene that lingers with us throughout the film because it is nearly the only scene where Jordan shows some humanity and humility. It is a scene of significant transformation, where Jordan is allowed to become the despicable creature he is.
After this the market crashes, and Jordan is forced to take a job selling lousy penny stocks, and this is where he takes off. At a 50% commission he is selling lies to hapless believers trying to make a fast dollar. From here he starts his own business, called Stratton Oakmont, which goes on to take Wall Street by storm. The second act of the film follows Jordan as he tries to protect his business and assets from the SEC and FBI, but eventually of course, he is cornered and forced to take a deal with the SEC in order to avoid further FBI scrutiny. So he takes the microphone and stage to address his company—a room full of people who love him and devote themselves to his leadership. It is this scene where we more fully grasp the significant message of the film.
Jordan gives an impassioned speech. His employees shout their love and praise for him. And in the course of his speech he talks himself out of leaving. The party is too fun, the high too good, the money too enticing. He is staying. The place erupts! Just as we have become accustomed to the strangeness of it all, Jordan begins to pound his chest, chant and howl, and all of his employees right along with him, just as Hanna had taught him early on. As they chant on and a quiet slow-motion shot sweeps across the room of elated employees, we more fully see that this is the story of a religious cult. The god: Money. The leader: Jordan Belfort. The avenue: the excesses of American capitalist greed.
The film ends with Jordan out of prison, giving a seminar to men and women in New Zealand looking to learn the tricks of getting rich. The final shot of the film moves across the room full of starry-eyed dreamers hanging on Jordan’s every word and action. It is as much a film about all of us as it is about Jordan. We are the starry-eyed dreamers allowed to believe that the life of excess they enjoyed is the American Dream. A great majority of us have inherited the sin of men like Jordan because we are conditioned to believe the lie that Money is the only true god, no matter which other god to whom we pledge our allegiance. The film ought to gnaw at us because it is simultaneously relentless in its entertainment value, and also a gross reflection of ourselves. We revel in a filth of our own creation because we believe at some point it will save us—but it never will. This film is brilliant, important, and I believe ranks among some of Scorsese's finest films.
“As long as our future drives other people to despair, as long as our prosperity means poverty for others, as long as our 'growth' destroys nature - anxiety, not hope, will be our daily companion.”—Jürgen Moltmann