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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Wolf of Wall Street review: legitimate businessman

The Wolf of Wall Street green light Leonardo DiCaprio

A debauched end-of-empire horror story disguised as an outrageous comedy, with remarkable performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Scorsese and DiCaprio

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There’s a few things I don’t quite get about the chatter around The Wolf of Wall Street. I would never have noticed that it’s now the F-bomb champ of cinema history if that hadn’t become a thing, because it doesn’t seem any more sweary than any other Martin Scorsese movie. (I do wonder about the sort of person who would decide to count the naughty words in a movie.) Probably it’s no more dense with profanity than any other Scorsese flick, but with a director’s-best length — one minute under three hours — the same number of fucks-per-minute would indeed yield a greater cumulative count. I don’t get complaints about the runtime, either: the film feels like it’s just the length it needs to be to make the point it wants to make. There is certainly much in the way of appalling debauchery to keep the viewer occupied and diverted, and also horrified.

And that’s the last thing I don’t get: the people who are fretting that Wolf glorifies convicted securities fraudster and all-around scumbag Jordan Belfort. If, after the movie ends and you exit its force field of agitated exhilaration, you still genuinely believe what we see onscreen here is appealing and glamorous, then you may be part of the problem that the film wishes to highlight.

Wolf is indeed very much like GoodFellas, as it looked and sounded from the first trailer (if not earlier): based on a true story chock full of very American themes of felonious entrepreneurship and shocking chutzpah, presented with Scorsese’s breathless pinball energy – which makes it electrifying, if sometimes in ways that embarrass us to get caught up in, and we end up like Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas confessing, “I gotta admit, it turned me on” — and headlined by characters so utterly fascinating (if mostly in an approaching-train-wreck sort of way) that you could not look away even if you wanted to. The idea isn’t to make massive ongoing Wall Street con games and crashing helicopters cuz you’re flying while high (and also without know how to fly a helicopter) and snorting industrial quantities of cocaine and fucking anything that moves — all of which Belfort gets up to — look cool, but to demonstrate just how he got away with everything he got away with for so long. As with Henry Hill, it’s because Belfort carried a tractor beam of self-aggrandizing charisma around with him that he was able to suck in so many devotees — oh my goodness, Jonah Hill (This Is the End, 21 Jump Street) as Belfort crony and BFF Donnie Azoff is a revelation — and convince so many people that he was hot shit.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort here often talks directly into the camera, directly to us, drawing us directly into his self-delusional world. We’re seeing a lot of stuff here from inside his own coked-up head, and the clash between what he thinks is going on and what’s really going on leads to some uproarious bits that show off DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby, Django Unchained) as an actor who needs to be doing more comedy, but most importantly, are funny mostly if you aren’t taken in by the supposed glamour and awesomeness of his life. (If you are taken in, they must surely seem sad and unfair.) These moments are funniest as little comeuppances hinting at the larger ones to come.

Yet Wolf isn’t just a comedy: it’s an end-of-empire horror story, and it is at least as terrifying as it is hilarious. The bad guys of GoodFellas were unquestionably villains, committing terrible crimes that no one would deny are injurious not only to the individuals affected but to society at large. Not so the likes of Jordan Belfort, who at 22 went to work as “a money-crazed little shit” on respectable — nay, revered — Wall Street in the 1980s. His financial wrongdoing — selling worthless penny stocks for outrageous fees (his early misdeeds inspired the 2000 film Boiler Room) and later manipulating IPOs to earn himself millions — is barely distinguishable from the supposedly legitimate business of high finance, and only shades of nuance render it illegal. And everyone knew it even in the 1980s: “We don’t create shit,” Belfort’s first Wall Street boss (Matthew McConaughey [Dallas Buyers Club, Magic Mike], in a scarily memorable cameo) shrugs. “We don’t build anything.” They’re useless parasites, and encouraged to be so; we see here how one negative profile of Belfort in Forbes made him “a superstar.” Being a useless parasite is okay if it makes some of them rich, and our entire economy is set up to allow this to happen. These assholes were the golden boys then, and they still are today, even after they wrecked the global economy in 2008.

“Stratton Oakmont” — Belfort’s scamming company — “is America,” he says, and he’s correct, except it’s the whole world. The final shot of the film is of an Australian a New Zealand audience at a Belfort “motivational” seminar, held after he’s become notorious as a con artist and has served prison time. His acolytes gaze at him in awe. It’s awful. Sure, I laughed throughout The Wolf of Wall Street. But mostly what I’ve left with is this: The world is fucked beyond repair, and too many people are okay with that. Instead, they’re worried about the number of naughty words in a movie.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
US/Can release: Dec 25 2013
UK/Ire release: Jan 17 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated FU (contains fraud undone)
MPAA: rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence
BBFC: rated 18 (contains very strong language, strong sex and hard drug use)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Danielm80

    For years, people have been complaining about sex and violence and their effect on movie ratings. Audiences are much more offended by nudity and sexual content than they are by violence, even though violence is more harmful to the people involved. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    My theory is that Scorsese was trying to prove the point, so he remade Goodfellas, took out all the violence, and put in dozens of shots of naked women. And far more people have complained about this movie than ever complained about Goodfellas. It got a Cinemascore rating of C, apparently because of the sexual content. So Scorsese proved his point: The world is fucked beyond repair.

  • Hank Graham

    Many years ago, after reading Michael Lewis’s “Liar’s Poker,” I wrote in a review of it that it needed to be a Scorsese movie. Because my insight then was that these “money-crazed” idiots on Wall Street were essentially the same as the criminals Scorsese had profiled in “Goodfellas.” I’m getting a lot of satisfaction of seeing the film I’d imagined him making, way back in the early 90’s.

  • None

    Weren’t you the one who was critical of those who called for more vagina on screen, yet now critical of those who complained about nudity in this film?

  • Danielm80

    As I said, repeatedly, I have no problem with vaginas on screen. I do have problems with films that are exploitative. I don’t think this film is one of them.

  • This movie, right from the first trailer, has looked like something I’ve seen ten million times before. I just can’t get interested in it.
    Plus, it feels like leo has played this same role in multiple movies. I guess I’ll see it when it comes home, just out of curiosity.
    Isn’t Leo a bit old to be playing a 22-year old? Do they slap a bunch of makeup on him?

  • None

    Weren’t you the one who was critical of those who called for more vagina on screen, yet now critical of those who complained about nudity in this film?

  • Tonio Kruger

    * Sigh! *

    Here we go again…

  • George

    MaryAnn, I think this is my favorite review you’ve written all year. I loved Wolf of Wall Street, and I think you articulated the reasons why better than I ever could have. You’re last line actually made me wince a little bit, because it’s so bone-achingly true.

  • Wasn’t Ray Liotta too old to play the young Henry Hill? Isn’t Idris Elba too old to play the young Mandela? It’s a standard trope, and it works here as well as it works anywhere.

  • Graham Cliff

    “The world is fucked beyond repair, and too many people are okay with that. Instead, they’re worried about the number of naughty words in a movie.” Thank you, MaryAnn. I’m glad there are some people who understand this movie!

  • luna

    FTR the final scene takes place in New Zealand, not Australia.

  • CollapseIntoVoid

    Ok, the world is fucked beyond repair. So what can we do about it.


    That’s the answer that no one wants to hear. Instead they just keep repeating that the world is fucked over and over and over until somehow they make it not true. As if there is some genius without any access to communication with the ability to solve our problems who doesn’t KNOW about them. But that’s not the case.

    All over the world people keep shouting “action must be taken” but no one says what it is.

    I am sick of that. You know what I want to hear? I want to hear the truth. I want to hear the phrase “I don’t know”. I want to hear the phrase “there is no hope”. But most of all I want to hear this:

    “You can give up”.

    The world is clearly headed into free fall: economic, social, environmental, resource collapse. Yet people keep carrying on when the most merciful thing to do is give up now. Their biological fear of death is their greatest enemy. We need to start heavily promoting and removing the stigma of painless euthanasia so that those intelligent enough to know the outcome of things can exit peacefully. Perhaps have some sort of subsidy so that for every person who decides to take their own life, a sizeable amount of money is provided for the charity of their choice. Maybe if enough people do that, this planet can be saved, but it will likely not. The greatest comfort will be to relive the suffering of the enlightened. Of those who are still bound to this hell because they don’t want their loved ones to suffer. But if we can make them see that it is the best thing for them, we can do the most humane thing we can do for the world.

  • Really? Oops.

  • Is this a joke?

  • Best suicide note ever! But this isn’t your facebook page, dawg.

  • amanohyo

    The cursing and nudity were fine – my issue is that the movie doesn’t go far enough, it pulls its punches. There is an odd sense of joy throughout the whole film because it never leaves the perspective of those it’s trying to criticize. Some might call it the film’s genius, but Jordan’s perspective is too limited and unrealistic to support the film (although DiCaprio is excellent). Like Caligula, it’s an empty exercise in excess – funny in spots, but lacking bite… also lacking most of the excess (also lacking man on horse sex). In other recent films that criticize wealthy solipsists like Blue Jasmine and American Hustle, you get the sense that the filmmakers understand why their characters are so reprehensible and small minded, and other characters who are humble and tethered to reality make an appearance to stabilize the moral center of the film. It feels as if Scorsese doesn’t even understand why Jordan and those around him are horrifying – they aren’t cartoon characters who jovially follow their primal lust for power, money, and sex, oblivious to the suffering around them. The real comedy is that they know that they are destroying the lives of millions of people, and in their twisted calculus, that mountain of suffering is worth less than their own pleasure and sense of self-importance. This movie wants us to laugh at a cardboard cutout of a monster, but it also wants us to love the monster. I wouldn’t call it a glorification – more of a declawing and chibification. It’s a missed opportunity; however, several other excellent films tackled similar themes this year so no big loss.

  • Kellyfergison

    Bad casting + shallow script= Terrible, dum movie.

    Leonard DiVinci was wrong for the part. He looked too recognizable and doesn’t hold a candle to the greats like Cary Grant. Who would be more fitting and less recognizable from our time? Seann William Scott maybe? Simon Baker? Dylan McDermot? Werner Herzog instead of Rob Reiner? That sound more like perfect casting.

    I liked the movie except for its beginning, middle and end. It would’ve been more interesting as a “found footage” movie. A comedy has to be funnie to be a comedy. This was more along the lines of a tragedy. If the Leo character was a woman you’d hate the movie. I guess shallow movies about guys are more to your liking.

    Maybe you should go watch the new John Claude Van Dam movie instead. It’s even more shallow but funnier and 1.5 hours shorter. It’s stupid and knows that it’s stupid unlike this movie, If Scorceses was smart, he’d know that he’s stupid. He hasn’t made a good movie since Raging Bull or Goodfelas.

  • amanohyo

    I’m pretty sure this is trolling (no one’s spelling is that inconsistent), but I have to say – if the Leo character was a woman played by an eqaully talented actress… I wouldn’t necessarily hate the movie quite as much (assuming the script was identical). I can’t think of a famous movie with a brash,wealthy, unapologetically selfish female asshole in the title role, so it would at least have novelty on its side.

  • Rebecca

    This point has already been proven before.

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