The Wolf of Wall Street

Depending on your perspective, Martin Scorsese’s latest picture is either a return to form or a tiresome retread of past glory. Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter’s script is based loosely on the true story of the stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Scorsese's go-to leading man Leonardo DiCaprio). We follow Belfort as he rises from humble beginnings to the upper echelons of Wall Street, an ascent enabled by crime and corruption.  The film bears many similarities to earlier Scorsese pictures drawn from real life, like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, but instead of focusing on the working-class exploits of gangsters, cops, and tough guys, Wolf deals with the white-collar crimes of the financial elite. The cast is uniformly strong, movie stars, unknowns and cameos alike, and the film features many exciting and well-crafted sequences worthy of Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, his talented editor. But the movie as a whole lacks the tension, humor and credibility of their best work.

The drug, testosterone, and greed-fueled milieu of these Wall Street traders has all of the Mafia world's excess, but none of its romance, life-and-death stakes, or blood-and-marinara-soaked poetry. At the top of his form, Scorsese’s uncanny eye for historical accuracy, his keen ear for character-based comedy, and his mastery of cinematic montage, music and sound capture viewers and immerse us in his movies. More than any director, he can simultaneously make his audience outside observers playing expositional catch-up and active participants getting seduced by the world of the film along with the protagonists.. Even if his characters' actions repulse us we understand the attraction of the lifestyle Scorsese depicts. Through Henry Hill’s eyes, the gangsters in Goodfellas enchant us, seeing both the undercover cop and the Mafia mole simultaneously grow into their roles in The Departed instantly makes us want to root for both of them.  Unfortunately, watching the overgrown adolescents of The Wolf of Wall Street shout, screw, cheat people out of their money, and consume huge quantities of drugs is just less compelling.  Scorsese is certainly capable of humanizing his protagonists and drawing us into their stories, and it says something that the boorish rapaciousness of the Wall Street crooks in Wolf seems infinitely more repugnant than all the brutal gangland violence in his other films. 

I'm not entirely certain what genre Wolf of Wall Street belongs in.  It's too long and not nearly funny enough to be the satirical black comedy it's been marketed as, and it lacks the tension and authenticity of a convincing historical crime drama that also happens to be funny, like Goodfellas. In that film, and even in the weaker follow-up Casino, we are constantly aware of what is at risk for the characters: brutal violence, the physical and psychological damage of heavy drug use, and the potential of incarceration, or worse, that comes with illegal activities.  We see none of this in Wolf. Belfort and his buddies seem totally invulnerable to everything. Part of the film’s point is that extreme wealth enables an imperviousness to consequences, but much of what the film depicts actually undercuts this theme. The drug-abuse sequences in particular play like comedic send-ups of conspicuous consumption, as if Scorsese and his actors want to one-up all previous movie sequences of this ilk. These efforts come at the expense of the film’s reality. 

The Wolf of Wall Street if most effective during the many scenes in which Belfort addresses his fellow brokers. Here, Scorsese, Winter, and DiCaprio manage to get at the most interesting thing about men like this. On the surface, we see Belfort rallying the troops before they hit the trading floor or take a bold new step in his company’s development. But these scenes also provide a glimpse into how a men like Belfort use their energy and verbal skills to convince both themselves and those around them that they are not only smarter than everyone else, but also that they’re moral, benevolent, and essentially good people. These monologues display a unique form of denial, and DiCaprio does an excellent, subtle job of hinting at this emotional truth.  But the rest of the film doesn't trust us to make discoveries on our own, opting instead to clobber us over the head with voice-over narration, direct address of the camera, and even verbalized inner monologues. All the sound, fury and cinematic pyrotechnics add up to a film that's often neither pleasant nor enlightening.

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Screenplay by Terence Winter
Based on the book by Jordan Belfort

With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Jake Hoffman, Bo Dietl, Ted Griffin, Spike Jonze, Fran Lebowitz, and the voice of Edward Herrmann

Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker

Runtime: 180 min
Release Date: 25 December 2013
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1