THE WOLF OF WALL STREET-- 4 STARS
Since the Christmas Day release of The Wolf of Wall Street from director Martin Scorsese, the peaks and valleys of the buzz and backlash being traded back and forth has been nothing short of eye-opening. We see a few controversial movies come out every year, but this one is becoming hugely different. First, before its release, the awards season chatter grew with the film earning a place on the "Top Ten Films of the Year" lists for both the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute, coupled with two Golden Globe nominations including one for Best Picture. Critic reviews aggregated to a strong 76% and "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, cementing that advance word of quality further. Its opening day $10 million take on Christmas Day at the box office was the highest of the many new releases and beat The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for the top spot, setting it up for a possible run at being #1 for the entire holiday weekend. Everyone who wanted to show up did, but then they went home unhappy, some before the movie even ended. Reports of walkouts grew from all over the country. That's when the swarm of negativity started and it hasn't stopped.
The Wolf of Wall Street posted a "C" grade on Cinemascore, something lower than every single current wide release, including the bombs 47 Ronin and Walking with Dinosaurs which still managed a B- or better. That scrambled entertainment news outlets to post articles analyzing the supposed fallout, some just a day after its Christmas Day debut. You have Cinema Blend posting "obvious" so-called reasons why people didn't like it, the Los Angeles Times labeling the film "too polarizing for the mainstream," and Vanity Fair showing the counterpoint delight today's business crowd took from the rage of other people. All are great reads and all cited that heinous Cinemascore grade and the three hours of hard-R content.
Disgruntled and appalled viewers took to social media to indict the film's crude content. Plenty of people worked out their fake "internet courage" to talk their smack, but one particular reply went viral for speaking the truth. Christine McDowell, an actual family member of those who took the fall for the real businessmen that the film is based on, wrote a strongly-worded LA Weekly blog open letter to the filmmakers. She, very rightfully, blasted the film's stance of celebrating its main characters, their excessive actions, the misogynistic treatment of women, and criticized the complete lack of depiction and respect given to the victims of the actual failed investments and scandals. It's a scathing piece targeted squarely at the film's glamour and comedic take of nothing being actually funny in real life. Make it required reading after seeing the film. McDowell's honest sharing of the real fallout has seemed to be a rallying call for people to discount and dislike the film even further.
How does a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street fare after all of that? I hate to say it, but negative press is still press. The combined positive and negative talk still counts as talk. The filmmakers want you to talk about it. They want the word to get out. Mission accomplished. The marketing department did its job. The trailers kept the content close to the vest and got people to want to see it. Plenty of people, myself including, will ignore the negative hype and want to judge the film for themselves. That's where I come in writing this review a few days after its release.
Before we get too deep in analysis, let's talk about the film itself. The Wolf of Wall Street, adapted by Boardwalk Empire creator Terrance Winter in his second collaboration with Martin Scorsese, is based on the memoirs of stock swindler Jordan Belfort, who Forbes nicknamed as the movie's title. Played by Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, the film is created to be a black comedy with DiCaprio's Belfort narrating and "breaking the fourth wall" to talk directly to the camera in telling his enormous and unbelievable former lifestyle.
That story begins in 1987 when Belfort becomes a junior stockbroker for the suave Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in a "brass balls" speech role), who teaches him the ropes of being successful, but also the necessary fuel of sex and drugs that make for his edge and success. After passing his Series 7 Exam, he is bounced from his job by the infamous Black Monday stock market crash of October 19, 1987. Jordan considers a change in career before hitching his wagon with a crappy penny stock boiler room investor center on Long Island. With closing skills beyond those of his peers, he works the commission system and makes a fast fortune. It's in these throwaway penny stocks that Jordan sees a profit margin greater than that of the big wig/big name stocks. He enlists a few shaddy salesman friends, led by his top partner Donnie Azoff (Oscar nominee Jonah Hill), and starts Stratton Oakmont out of a former auto garage.
In swift time, Stratton Oakmont succeeds and expands to become a multi-million dollar company, opening up a lavish word of drugs, cars, parties, houses, dinners, credit cards, hookers, and voracious stock competition. Jordan tosses aside his wife for the chance to land and marry a hot Dutch model named Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie, recently seen in About Time). Once the feds start sniffing around Stratton Oakmont, in the form of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), Jordan and his inner circle raise the stakes rather than slow down as the years progress. They seek out means to smuggle their earned and stolen fortunes to a Swiss bank fronted by Jean-Jacques Saurel (The Artist Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin) with the help of Naomi's British aunt (Bond girl relic Joanna Lumley) and back channels and false connections set up by Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead).
As we know though, at some point Icarus is going to fly too close to the Sun and plummet back to Earth. Martin Scorsese stretches this film to three hours, down from a rumored four, to get us to that point and comeuppance. In that time, Leonardo DiCaprio lays down a larger-than-life performance that is, quite possibly, the best of his already immense young career. If you thought he was wildly uncouth and unrestrained in Django Unchained last year, take that and multiply by 100 for The Wolf of Wall Street. Combining Django Unchained with his spectacular performance in The Great Gatsby earlier this year and now The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio continues to challenge himself and his talent to always raise his game and fully commit to a role. He has done more before 40 than most actors have done their entire careers. This is his show, his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, and he is nothing short of brilliant. Everyone else is along for the ride.
Many of my friends and followers have been asking me through the holiday weekend on social media if I had seen The Wolf of Wall Street yet and if I had a review for them. Well, now I finally do. First and foremost, people need to know that this film is absolutely not for everyone. That advertised hard-R content is real. People need to heed that rating and leave all kids and teens at home. Nearly twenty minutes was cut from this film being NC-17 and it's still three hours long and incredibly gratuitous. The sex, language, drugs, adult themes, and unsafe behavior is truly off the charts. It's one of the hardest R-rated films I've ever seen where violence wasn't the reason for the NC-17 label.
It's downright filthy and immoral, but that's the point. Wait. What? Don, did you just condone this kind of behavior and a film that crosses the line to depict it? No, I don't, but you're missing the purpose of the film. Here's my bombshell answer to all of the controversy surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street. Are you ready?
Final answer: You're supposed to hate The Wolf of Wall Street.
You're supposed to hate these characters. You're supposed to hate their horrible actions. You're supposed to hate their lifestyle. You're supposed to hate that they took advantage of people for money. You're supposed to hate the scale of that money-grabbing swindling. You're supposed to hate that they nearly all got away with ruining lives or received minimal prison sentences. You're supposed to notice that the victims are not talked about. You are supposed to find every single minute of this film obscene, excessive, wrong, and deplorable. You're supposed to shake your head in disbelief. Worst of all, you're supposed to laugh at how unbelievable and over-the-top this film takes everything.
Why are we supposed to hate The Wolf of Wall Street? Follow this trail next. We are supposed to realize that we ended up laughing with the perpetrators at the victims' expense, just as McDowell wrote in her open letter. We're supposed to then feel guilty that we laughed and sided with the crooks in the name of entertainment. Because of that, we end up hating that the film did that to us and made us feel guilty. Then, we up hating the kind of wealth, business, and wild excess in real life that was on display in the film. They want us to hate Wall Street.
This film may be about the 1980's and 1990's version of Wall Street, but you are blind and naive if you don't think Terrance Winter, Martin Scorsese, and all involved aren't pointing their collective finger at the same Wall Street that exists today that existed then. They are out to massacre the 1% of the wealthiest Wall Street fat cats that we've been hearing about making money and collecting bonuses since the 2008 bailouts while the rest of the county is gripped with recession and unemployment. The villains are them and they wear business suits and shark-tooth smiles instead of black hats and evil mustaches.
When you leave the theater with your hate shifted in that direction, even at the expense of the film itself, the third mission was accomplished. First, they got you to see it. Second, they got you to talk about it. Finally, they got you to hate the wealthy villains that exist in this country. Martin Scorsese is too smart of a filmmaker to make a three-hour opus that you find excessive without having a reason why. I firmly believe his reason and message for making The Wolf of Wall Street was to have you walk out after the movie hating the corporate America embodied by Wall Street.
The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the rare examples of a movie that is designed for you not to like it. No one sits at home and says "I love that part of Schindler's List when they round up all of those women and children in the shower. I love that part. Can we fire up the DVD player?" No one combs through Netflix and says "Hey, can we watch Jesus get whipped until he bleeds excessively for twenty minutes? Awesome, let's watch The Passion of the Christ." People undoubtedly appreciate those two films, but no one "loves" them. They are not lovable movies.
The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't want to be lovable. It just wants to remind you how excessive wealth can get and catch you being entertained by it. You can't target excessiveness to hate without being excessive in its depiction. If the film wasn't over-the top or unbelievable, it wouldn't be serving its purpose and wouldn't have the balls to take its message or story all the way. The goal was to not sugarcoat a damn thing. No thieves are made to look like Robin Hood. To offer a comparison, this movie has the sharp edge and balls that American Hustle lacks in being a crime drama with very little crime or drama. That movie went the Robin Hood route and you just don't buy it. At least The Wolf of Wall Street went for it, flaws and all, and didn't just beat around the bush or cherry pick the good parts.
The Wolf of Street is a dark black comedy that delivers just that. The laughs are huge and the shock value impact is like a punch to the face from a 400mph private jet. Other than the hard-R envelopes being pushed, this film is no more scathing or worse in its societal target message than when Jason Reitman parodied Big Tobacco in Thank You For Smoking, Richard Linklater targeted small town murder in Bernie, or Mary Harron adapted the similar 80's excess in American Psycho.
People need to settle down and look past the vulgarity. The Wolf of Wall Street didn't have an ax-murdering businessman like American Psycho. It didn't saw up a stripper after a bachelor party like 1998's under-seen dark comedy Very Bad Things or throw a guy in a wood chipper like Fargo. It's like bitching about Django Unchained for the N-word and not the violence.
So people blew their money on sex and drugs back in the day. Are you really that surprised? Get over it and get passed it. Look deeper than the glamour. Laugh at it or build the targeted hate you're supposed to. The uproar people have for The Wolf of Wall Street really isn't warranted compared to other movies that have done worse with more violent content. I'll never understand the intolerance of sex and language being greater than the intolerance for violence in movies, but that's a longer story for another piece.
Remember, just about every war film ever made is essentially an anti-war film showing the horrors of war as cautionary tales not circle jerks for violence worship or rallying calls for bloodshed. They are supposed to make you dislike war. If you watch those movies and want to go to war and kill people, you are missing the entire point of the film. You become part of the problem. That same parallel can be made with The Wolf of Wall Street. If you watch the film and now aspire to be a stock broker to get into the same wealth and vices, you missed the point of the film and join the problem You missed the purpose of seeing how excessive, deplorable, and wrong the film and that lifestyle was and is. You're allowed to be entertained, but you're not allowed to take this film seriously. That's why it's a comedy. That's why you're supposed to hate it.
The Wolf of Wall Street opened on Christmas Day to theaters across the Chicagoland area.
LESSON #1: THE STOCK MARKET IS A GAME WHERE SOME PLAY BY THE RULES AND OTHERS GET PLAYED-- Matthew McConaughey's mentor character covers this whole shell game more colorfully in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Stock brokers don't make anything, build anything, or contribute anything. They move other people's money and profit from it. We are coached by Jordan's narration to see the penny stock region of the market and how commissions are king. We see the animalistic competitiveness of it all. Some of those investors can win, but, more often than not, they lose. Once again, just as McDowell wrote, the victims are the invisible element of this film's dark comedy.
LESSON #2: THE DRAW OF GETTING RICH-- This is not the first movie or the last to show characters and stories of people seduced by the idea of getting rich and, in this case, getting rich quick. The Wolf of Wall Street, however, is likely the gaudiest movie we've seen contribute to this lesson. These smooth stock brokers are all about the sale. They never take "no" for an answer and create the false urgency that makes their investors cave. These guys gain a winning and victorious mentality from knowing they suckered someone. Because money is involved, that salesmanship and exposure to success contributes to that draw. It becomes one of their many addictions.
LESSON #3: MONEY AND GREED WILL MAKE YOU FEEL INVINCIBLE-- Money will make you think you are better than someone that doesn't have it. Money will make you think you can buy your way out of trouble or do stupid things. Money will open the doors to materialistic things you could only dream of. Money creates that greed to always reach for more of what you can't have. Both create a feeling of invincibility, where you feel that you are untouchable. That's what opens the doors to other addictions like sex, drugs, and alcohol. Those are just gateway vices to the real addiction of money and greed.
LESSON #4: LEARN YOUR LESSON-- It may sound like hyperbole labeling "learn your lesson" as a lesson on my website's theme, but I go back to the entire answering rant of my review to this movie's message and hype. Watch this movie and learn the lesson than Jordan didn't. Watch this movie and see that Jordan had plenty of chances to say no, stop, and even get out with minimal damage. Don't watch this movie and think you can do what they did to or do it better and bigger. Don't watch this movie and glorify others' mistakes. Learn the lesson of money and greed. Learn your lesson to be different and not add to the problem. The Wolf of Wall Street is beyond the "cautionary tale" label. This film should be a screaming "don't you even dare" learning experience.