Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau
The Wolf of Wall Street is the embodiment of the excess and materialism of the 90s told in almost gleeful detail by the direction of Martin Scorsese and the entertaining (though sometimes inane) narration by Leonardo DiCaprio. The comparisons to Scorsese’s Goodfellas are undeniable (the narration, drugs, rise and fall of a small time crook, etc.) but sadly the biggest difference between the two is quality.
From his first day as a stockbroker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) was told by a more experienced colleague (played briefly but spectacularly by Matthew McConaughey) not to make money for his clients but for himself. Belfort quickly catches on to this advice and after briefly honing his skills at a low-end firm, starts his own company, the now infamous Stratton Oakmont. The whole place comes off like a depraved cult, where Belfort is the messiah and his employees are his disciples. Eventually, however, as the money rolls in, Belfort’s antics catch the attention of the FBI and he is eventually brought down by his uncontrollable greed, massive drug addiction, and perhaps worst of all, his own ego.
DiCaprio puts everything into this film and as a result gives his best performance in years. He makes Belfort surprisingly charismatic and charming which is especially surprising given what an awful excuse for a human being Belfort proves himself to be as the film goes on. Belfort has no moral qualms conning random schmucks into investing their life savings in worthless stocks simply saying that he spends the money better than they would anyway.
With the wrong actor, this kind of line would probably have made me want to walk out on the spot but DiCaprio is able to make it funny. At the same time he makes it surprisingly easy to believe why so many people would so enthusiastically follow Belfort to their inevitable oblivion. DiCaprio’s best scene by far is watching him trying to make it back to his car despite being so high on Quaaludes that his motor skills are completely shot and has to crawl very slowly.
I just wish the rest of the cast had been given the same kind of development and personality as Belfort. While virtually all of the characters are at least partially based on some of Belfort’s real-life associates, most of them come off more like cartoon characters than actual people.
Perhaps the film’s worst offender is Belfort’s second-in-command Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Between his own constant drug use, being married to his first cousin, and having his teeth bleached to the point that they practically glow in the dark he’s every bit as insane as Belfort if not more so. The problem with this is that Azoff (and the other characters for that matter) isn’t nearly interesting enough to convince me to care despite Jonah Hill’s admirable efforts.
Going into the Wolf of Wall Street’s release, there had been rumors’ floating around that the content was considerably more “mature” than Scorsese’s movies of the past. For better or worse, those rumors are absolutely true. The film earns its R rating almost instantly and there were many scenes that bordered on NC-17.
While I’ve never considered myself a prude, there were definitely some moments that made me feel rather unclean as I was watching this. It would be easy to blame Scorsese or screenwriter Terrence Winter for this but actually it’s all pretty much consistent with Belfort’s tell-all memoirs the movie was based on, so I’ve pretty much chalked it up to Scorsese’s attention to detail.
This isn’t helped by the increasingly grueling three hour run time. Once the film makes it past the two hour mark, it can feel a little grinding. It was at least half an hour too long and probably the most bloated film Scorsese has ever done. There had actually been a couple of points where it seemed like the film should’ve ended but just kept going making the actual ending feel surprisingly anticlimactic.
Make no mistake; as much as I’ve criticized The Wolf of Wall Street, it is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, despite all of its problems there is ample evidence that this could’ve been something great if Scorsese hadn’t rushed the editing. Sadly, this is nowhere close to Scorsese’s best work and it was hard not to walk out of the theater with a feeling of disappointment.