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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