If Gordon Gekko thought that greed was simply “good,” then Jordan Belfort must have thought it was the greatest thing in the whole world. As the subject of Martin Scorsese’s latest picture, Belfort is a go-getter who dives headfirst into the world of stock-brokering, using no small amount of zeal to get to the place he wants to be. Like Gekko, he’s a smooth-talker who knows how to interest people in a deal, even when the deal is complete bologna. For three hours, Scorsese takes you through the rise and fall of this man who wanted everything, but as with most people whose reach exceeds their grasp, their world eventually comes tumbling down all around them, showing that blind greed can indeed have devastating consequences.
We begin when Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a novice for a brokerage firm on Wall St., where he is taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a senior broker. On the very first day that Jordan begins working as a full broker, the market suffers its worse drop since the crash of ’29, forcing the firm to close its doors and Jordan to find another job. He eventually winds up at a small penny stock trading company, where he becomes a huge success thanks to their commission rate of 50%.
Around this time, he randomly becomes acquainted with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a neighbor who is stunned at the revenue Jordan is making, leading him to quit his job and join in the business. Eventually, Jordan, Donnie, and a few associates go solo, starting up their own trading firm where everyone quickly becomes filthy rich. As they become more and more successful, the company grows larger and larger, eventually catching the eye of the FBI, who begin an investigation into the firm’s questionable business practices.
Scorsese’s latest opus is excessively grand in both good and bad ways. In telling the tale of a stockbroker who knows no limits on what he wants to gain, it’s understandable that Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter would want to show the grand excess in Jordan’s life, represented here mainly through drugs and prostitutes. However, it’s during these sections of the film that it’s at its weakest, mainly because there’s so much of it that several of these scenes end up feeling rather redundant.
The film is far more successful when it’s focusing on Jordan’s career path, from his humble starts to his time as a penny stock broker to being the head of his own successful company, with the challenges that arise because of it. Luckily, this makes up most of the three-hour runtime, causing the film to be quite entertaining for the vast majority of it. It’s throughout this main storyline that we’re thrown multiple scenes of Jordan’s drug use and sex obsession, as if to make sure we understand that he thoroughly enjoys his personal pleasures.
This is where the film could have stood to be trimmed down by a rather significant amount. As mentioned earlier, it’s understandable that they would want to show him becoming controlled by his vices, but the amount of focus it gets in the film ends up being enough to slow it down significantly when it becomes too much of a distraction from the main plot. For instance, there’s a scene in which Jordan and Donnie both take Quaaludes that are several years old, leading to a drawn-out scene in which the drugs have heavy effects on both of them. I suppose this was meant to be a small dose of comedy in the midst of all the stressful events going on in Jordan’s life, but given that it has nothing to do with the main plot, it ends up feeling like a waste of time instead (on top of it not being all that amusing).
These scenes don’t stop the film from being good, but they do stop it from being as good as it could have been. I imagine that a cut with about 45 minutes trimmed from it would have been far more exceptional, allowing the story to flow much better instead of being bogged down every now and again by the need for the filmmakers to rub Jordan’s vices in our faces. Again, some of it is to be expected, but it shouldn’t be allowed to take over the story at hand.
Speaking of the story at hand, it plays out as you would probably expect. Jordan becomes an exceedingly wealthy man, but always wants more, causing him to risk everything: his wife, his kid, and his freedom. The determination and zeal with which he goes about his work is one of the reasons the film is so entertaining. We don’t get to see much of it during his short time on Wall St., but as a penny stockbroker, he blows everyone away with his skills, eventually leading to great scenes in which he gives pep talks as the head of his own company. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself being reminded of Gordon Gekko as Jordan motivates his crew to do their best to get what they want.
The reason these scenes work so well is because of DiCaprio’s amazing, dedicated performance. He gives it his all as he goes through this rollercoaster of a character who just doesn’t know when to call it quits and walk away. Even when Jordan does have a chance to walk away, DiCaprio actually makes you believe that it’s the last thing in the world he wants to do. There’s more money to be made, so why quit now? The FBI may be knocking on their door, but that’s not about to stop him from soldiering on and doing what he loves. The audacity of this guy as he fights a battle he can’t win is amazing, all of which is marvelously portrayed by DiCaprio, Scorsese’s almost-constant collaborator.
Then, of course, you have Scorsese’s astonishing direction, but that’s to be expected from the man who has brought us such great films as “Goodfellas,” “Hugo,” and “Gangs of New York.” “The Wolf of Wall Street” may have flaws holding it back from being considered one of his greats, but it’s still a fine film featuring great performances, a snappy screenplay, and outstanding direction. It takes a basic story of excessive avarice and turns it into something wild and fun, which is even more incredible given that we know the great fall has to occur. Jordan might not have gotten everything he wanted from his brokering career, just like we might not have gotten everything we wanted out of this film, but, like him, when all is said and done, we find that we still got enough out of it. 3/4 stars.
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