There is a coked-up, rapid-fire, over-the-top way about The Wolf of Wall Street (opening today) that makes for simply mouthwatering cinema. It's the latest from legendary director Martin Scorsese, a film made with his usual panache yet laced with fervorous enthusiasm. Don't mistake the reckless way in which it appears to be put together, for recklessness. This is a conscious, stylistic choice, one that only matches the excessive nature of the world and characters it's portraying.
But that doesn't mean that it's a care-free ride. The world that it holding up a light to is that of Wall Street, or greedy brokers and businessmen in business for themselves, not their clients or their companies or the good of the economy. These are ugly, selfish, bossy, over-indulgent a-holes and the movie works to simultaneously entertain us as well as infuriate us with what it says about them, and our country as a whole.
The story centers around one particular Wall Street "wolf," the real-life Jordan Belfort (a crooked broker whose book is the basis of this film). Belfort is played by Leonardo DiCaprio doing his best...work...ever. Of all the great performances in 2013, his is the most fearless, covering the widest range of emotions and nailing each precise moment with honesty. He portrays Belfort as a young Gordon Gekko crossed with the Tasmanian Devil, infused with the tiger blood of Charlie Sheen.
Belfort's rise to power and unthinkable riches (and his eventual demise) is chronicled in great detail. Early on he meets business partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) whom he brings along. Fame leads to the attention of beautiful women, such as Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) as well as federal agents (Kyle Chandler) intent on bringing him down.
Remember the word "excessive," as there may never have been a movie described so perfectly with just one word. At nearly three hours, be ready to be hit right square in the face with a barrage of profanity, nudity, drug-use, racism, sexism and just about every offensive arrow that can possibly be slung. This is a bloated film (so why not then, shoe-horn Rob Reiner into the film as Jordan's wise-cracking dad?) that is comfortable in its girth.
The best aspect of The Wolf of Wall Street is the script by Terrence Winter, a guy used to writing about three-dimensional scumbags in power (he wrote for and was/is executive producer on The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire). It's hilariously, nose-snort-worthy, laugh-out-loud-for-real, funny throughout. But it also offers biting commentary on this insurmountable and unchecked system that fuels our economy. To say that the film's politics lean slightly to the left would be an under-statement. Because if this is how all of the one-percenters act, we're all screwed (and sadly, much of what happens here is unbelievable, but true).
But the film and the story suck us in, much like an innocent investor would be sucked in by one of these corrupt brokerage firms. We fall in love with it, we're glamored. There's a part of us that is envious of the lifestyle and the reward. We view Belfort and his cohorts as the bad guys only because most of us relate more with their victims, but don't act like there isn't a part of you - at least momentarily - that wants what Belfort has.
Scorsese throws up several knives from the very first frame and then juggles them high in the air for the entirety of the film, adding in cutlery of different shapes and sizes along the way but never faltering. We watch in amazement at the dangerousness of it all, but man is it exhilarating. Again, his directing style here is an attempt to match his on-screen subjects, the rare time in film-making where more is actually more.
In addition to DiCaprio, Jonah Hill does strong work and Margot Robbie is a scene-stealing delight. Everyone who sees The Wolf of Wall Street will leave asking the same question: Who was that girl? Don't worry. With this breakthrough performance, we will undoubtedly see more of her (if that's possible...ahem) down the road, not to mention that hers will soon be a household name.
And then there's Matthew McConaughey. Wow this guy. What a string of performances as of late. Here, he blows in, leaves his mark and blows out. His is the sort of Alec Baldwin Glengarry Glen Ross scene, where it may stand alone as one of the greatest scenes of all time. Just a few more seconds of screen time and McConaughey could have potentially been a three-time Oscar nominee this year (which still could happen, for his supporting work here and in Mud, as well as his lead performance in Dallas Buyers Club).
Speaking of great scenes, there is a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street - a drugged-up battle royal in a kitchen between DiCaprio and Hill - that is easily the funniest sequence of the year.
Match the award-worthy script to the achievement of Scorsese's direction, to the bravery of DiCaprio's performance along with the strong supporting cast and you have yourselves a real winner. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the best films of 2013. It's so funny that you will barely miss the scathing social commentary and even though the content is blunt and may be hard to swallow, it is a deliciously fulfilling, jagged-little-pill.
Run Time: 3 hours, Rated R
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley
Based on the book by Jordan Belfort
Written by Terence Winter (Get Rich or Die Tryin, HBO's Boardwalk Empire & The Sopranos)
Directed by Martin Scorsese (Hugo, Shutter Island, The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Casino, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets)
Opens locally on Wednesday, Dec 25, 2013 (check for show times).
Be sure to watch Tom Santilli on TV! Check your local listings for “Movie Show Plus” for Tom’s weekly movie review segment, airing at 10:30 p.m. EST every Sunday, on MYTV20 in Detroit.
How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time