“Gangs of New York”. “The Aviator”. “The Departed”. “Shutter Island”. These titles previously saw Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese join forces, and each of them to great effect, but their fifth title together, “The Wolf of Wall Street” takes the partnership to new heights. “The Wolf of Wall Street” chronicles the rise and fall of the brilliant, but completely immoral Jordan Belfort who made a name for himself as a stockbroker, though in reality he scammed those hundreds hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1990s by conning his clients and gaming the system and not by having unprecedented stock instincts.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” presents Belfort as larger than life and charming, but no matter how much success he gains, unreliable and always with a touch of salesman-like desperation. And yet, the film has been the subject of much criticism from audiences stating that it glorifies Belfort’s excess and actions. Still having seen the film and taken some time after doing so to live with it and ruminate on what’s put before us on the screen, this reviewer simply cannot reconcile the point of view that “The Wolf of Wall Street” celebrates what Belfort and his “merry band of brokers” did.
Yes, we see the massive homes and the nice cars, these con artists living the high-life as it were, but that’s simply the reality they lived. Feeling a measure of envy for the wealth they had is almost impossible for any of us to repress, but so too is the desire to buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot is big, no matter how long we know the odds are. The money and the envy it inspires are symptomatic of Belfort’s actions--and those actions are what define his outrageous, stranger-than-fiction story. The point then, is not that we should idolize him for his clever criminal manipulations, but instead that we should not be taken in by Belfort and those of his ilk.
Watching the film it’s easy to think that the filmmakers must have taken some serious liberties, and yet, when Time put the film up against Belfort’s memoir of the same name, they found it to be overwhelmingly faithful to the published text. If we learn anything in “The Wolf of Wall Street” it is to take Belfort with a grain of salt, so how accurate his presentation of his own life and times is is certainly something that could be called into question, but Scorsese and company didn’t need to exaggerate the outrageous elements, because they were already inconceivable enough.
DiCaprio delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career as Belfort. He makes Belfort at once affable and smarmy, attractive and repugnant. We get plenty of his trademark yelling and intensity, but DiCaprio gives the titular Wolf so much more, desperation, ambition, immorality, immaturity and all the zaniness of an unapologetically drug-addicted party boy. And better yet, we get to see a rare dose of physical comedy that arrives in the form of the most intense quaaludes binge, possibly ever. (For that scene, Leo has credited inspiration from this video.)
In many ways, “The Wolf of Wall Street” feels like a spiritual companion to Scorsese’s earlier masterwork “Goodfellas”. Belfort is every bit as reprehensible as Henry Hill, he breaks the fourth wall even more often, he takes similar actions to save himself and in some ways seems to miss the life he is forced to leave behind even more than Hill, though the latter is more forthcoming about that fact. Where “Goodfellas” gave us an intimate portrait of life in the mob, “The Wolf of Wall Street” takes us inside the world of unfathomable excess. The main difference? Henry Hill’s life no longer seems attainable, but there may yet be plenty of Belforts kicking around the financial world.
There are moments when Belfort is almost sympathetic. Almost. Though he and his cronies are consistently enjoyable to watch, only Kyle Chandler’s Agent Patrick Dunham is truly sympathetic. We can see to a certain extent that he’s seduced by the idea of Belfort’s life, but like the rest of us, as he doggedly rides home on a hot, sticky, crowded subway, he knows that he would never do the things Belfort did, the cost of that life simply isn’t worth it to him, and perhaps, Scorsese and DiCaprio are hoping to instill the sense that it shouldn’t be worth it to anyone.
One single gripe about this tale of corruption and excess? For a 2 hour 59 minute movie, it’s awfully short on Matthew McConaughey, the fleeting moments we get of his Mark Hanna just aren’t enough. And that’s a sentiment that Belfort and his partners in crime are all too familiar with.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a triumphant rendering of a nigh-unbelievable tale. In capturing the highs and lows of Belfort’s wild ride Scorsese has made an exceedingly smart (look for an incredibly subtle “Freaks” reference as Belfort and his companions discuss the finer points of a “midget-tossing competition”) film with a host of exceptional performances, not least among them from his leading man DiCaprio.