I didn’t much like The Wolf of Wall Street, finding it a story of unbridled excess with no redemption. It might be based on truth, it might even be completely accurate in its portrayal of Jordan Belfort and his exploits, but I felt like I’d watched something rather pornographic rather than a film exploring the excesses of 90’s Wall Street. A better film exploring the same topic, also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was 2013’s underrated The Great Gatsby. [my review of The Great Gatsby]
Because I didn’t like the film much, when I chatted with my friend Matt and he told me he had loved it, I invited him to write a guest review here on DaveOnFilm. So here it is, replete with a few spoilers (you’ve been warned)…
I’ll admit: three days later I’m still thinking about this film. It has a kind of kinetic energy that’s infectious. It’s a madcap romp through the highflying world of “boiler rooms” and Wall Street. If you like to party and toss little people at a target, do cocaine off a stripper’s ass, all the while making millions with the SEC and FBI breathing down your neck, or at least vicariously live that slice of the American Dream for a few hours, then this is perfect for you. This is the fifth film that Martin Scorsese has made with Leonardo DiCaprio and is by far the most interesting, albeit muddled, of the bunch. Scorsese tends to pick actors like painters pick colors.
He’s made eight films with Robert De Niro as the lead and if we contrast Scorsese with the artist like Mark Rothko, De Niro clearly is his red and DiCaprio his orange. What do I mean by that? De Niro has a range as an actor, but there’s always a danger about him, the potential for explosive rage and violent intensity. He’s red. That’s not the case with DiCaprio. DiCaprio is a softer, warmer orange. He’s not stuck like Richard Gere or Tom Cruise with a personality that he can’t get away from on screen (and off) but he genuinely comes across as a likable guy, like Tom Hanks, and that maybe hits at the heart of what’s wrong with this film.
DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, the real Wolf of Wall Street, who’s written two books on his exploits — The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, who is not such a likable guy. Jordan built a brokerage firm, the actual name Stratton Oakmont is used in the film, that allegedly defrauded investors of $200 million.
In real life this guy was pond scum selling inflated penny stocks to the bored and desperate, while doing massive amounts of cocaine off hookers backsides and DiCaprio just can’t pull off sleazy in a way that would have made this film sizzle. Sam Rockwell would have been an interesting lead, a guy you could love to hate, but with DiCaprio you just hope he slows down long enough to hear his father’s (Max Belfort, who’s played by the strangely cast Rob Reiner) warnings over the advice of his demented mentor Mark Hanna (the brilliant cast Matthew McConaughey) who makes it clear early on that greed is indeed fun and profitable, if not good.
It has been reported that this film ran into major editing challenges and it shows. The film comes in at three hours and my guess is there’s at least another two hours worth of footage on the editing floor. (I’d love to see Scorsese go for it one day and just make a five hour version of the film).
The story begins with a likable guy who’s married to his first love (played by Cristin Milioti) who is his rock and moral compass. He joins a brokerage firm and quickly learns his true soulmate is money. After Black Monday, the devastating stock market crash of 1987, he’s out of work and desperate.
Belfort eventually finds his way to selling penny stocks out of a strip mall out on Long Island. What are penny stocks? If you compare the stock market to a casino, then officially traded stocks are a form of gambling akin to Blackjack or Craps, where the odds are a little more in your favor and the outcome is somewhat dependent on your talent. Penny stocks, traded off Wall Street, are like slot machines. The lowest odds of winning, but you’re only gambling with nickels and dimes so what does it matter if there’s almost zero chance of a large payoff? It is here that the true moral dilemma and the heart of the film arrives: Wealthy people avoid penny stocks like shopping at K-Mart and the only way you make money selling penny stocks is to go after smaller fish.
Small time sure, but as any casino can tell you, those nickels and dimes add up. Belfort meets Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and in one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Donnie quits his job on the spot to go work for Belfort after being shown a paycheck with a hefty sum. They soon realize that not only do the two of them share a love of money, but drugs as well, and that’s when the party begins in earnest. Hookers, Quaaludes, cocaine, and a white Lamborghini just like the one Don Johnson drove in Miami Vice.
The scams become more sophisticated, involving IPOS’s, as the firm grows to a 1,000 brokers. Time for an upgrade to new offices and eventually the very definition of a trophy wife. Belfort meets and pursues the stunningly beautiful Naomi Lapaglia (played by Australian actress Margot Robbie) who’s the “Duchess of Ray Ridge” (of Saturday Night Fever fame) to Belfort’s Wolf.
A third of the way into the movie and Belfort has everything his character could want: a hot wife, a nice ride, a home in the Hampton’s, a yacht with a helicopter, and a mountain of cocaine. This is where the film begins to fall apart. Because it’s based on a true story, and attempts to stay true to that story, Scorsese and DiCaprio are left to play in a small sand box that even their collective talents can’t expand upon.
In real life, Belfort cuts a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and is given a four year prison sentence, of which he served only 22 months, and was required to pay a hefty $110 million dollar fine. Not exactly an ending like Scarface, The Godfather, or The Graduate. So the film bounces around between a morality play and a crime caper for the next two hours. Neither genre sticks and what you’re left with is a muddle of a film. If you mashed together Wall Street and Animal House you have a good start at describing this film, but then you’d have to add a touch of The Departed (crime story) and Blue Valentine (tragic love story) to get the full pallet that I believe Scorsese was attempting to work with.
Belfort does eventually get his comeuppance, but it falls flat as you’ve grown to like DiCaprio’s Belfort enough to want him to stay married to the beautiful Naomi and sail away on their yacht, not simply get divorced and go to jail for a few months. The FBI agent who catches Belfort (Kyle Chandler) has a scene near the end of the film that comes close to being as powerful as it was probably intended. I won’t give it away, but it’s an interesting comment on the American Dream. It made me wonder what the movie might have been like told from his perspective. I’m guessing and far more gritty and poignant film about white collar crime.
The Wolf of Wall Street is fun, interesting, and has moments of brilliance but eventually collapses in on itself. I’m giving this a B+ for the overall enthusiastic kinetic energy, my day job is college professor so grading seems right, but be fair warned there is a great deal of nudity, language, and moral ambiguity around crime and drug use.