Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young stock broker with only one thing on his mind: Making money. After the stock market crash of Black Monday, he loses his job, but not his drive to become rich. Together with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a guy he randomly meets at a diner, creates his own company and reinvents himself as the Wolf of Wall Street. Due to the higher commissions that come from selling penny stocks, Jordan and his team of weed dealers are able to grow and prosper. The bigger their company, the bigger the parties. However their excessive lifestyle of sex, drugs and fraud can’t go on forever. Especially when nosy and incorruptible FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts snooping around.
While film lovers seem to universally love and praise Martin Scorsese, I’ve always been very critical and skeptical of his work for some reason. I had heard various things about The Wolf of Wall Street (some good, some not-so-good). I tried to keep an open mind about the film and I must say that was absolutely thrilled by it. It’s such an energetic and fun film. It moves at a great pace, considering that it’s three hours long, I never found myself looking at the time or anything. I was in it the whole time and it is pretty relentless. The chaos, the circus, the craziness. It’s almost like a Fellini film. It’s a madhouse. It’s also hilarious. There’s all kinds of humor, but mostly dark humor. There’s misogyny, misanthropy and it just never stops.
Usually, I am a bit annoyed by Scorsese’s abuse of voice-over as a storytelling device. However in the case of Wolf it makes sense, since the film is based on the actual memoir of Jordan Belfort, a real person who’s still alive and well somewhere selling motivational tapes and stuff. Leonardo DiCaprio breaking the fourth-wall and addressing the audience directly also didn’t bother me, because as I said he’s adapting a real-life character. It seems that my favorite Scorsese films are the ones based on “true events” such as Raging Bull or The Last Temptation of the Christ. For some reason I think that’s what he’s best at or let’s say that those movies work best for me.
Biographical films (so-called biopics) tend to be difficult to pull off, because most of the times want to be respectful and tactful. Unfortunately, this translates in a lot of nauseating ass-licking and vomit-inducing pandering. In the case of Wolf however it was obvious from the start that we weren’t dealing with a beloved pop-culture icon like say Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela or Queen of England. The risk then becomes to unnecessarily moralize and demonize Jordan Belfort and his buddies, to make them seem like the most reprehensible and disgusting human beings to ever walk the earth. Instead Scorsese decides to let the viewer decide how to feel and what to think.
I’m sure a lot of people will see Wolf and be offended by the copious amounts of sex and the even greater about of drugs consumed in this film. Of course most people will talk about the sex, but there’s actually more drug (and alcohol) abuse in the film. I am sure there was more sex in the original cut of the film, to match the drugs, but you and I both know what bothers the MPAA more (hint: It’s not the drugs). The fact that Scorsese commendably doesn’t condemn his characters in this film makes sense. We all know they aren’t good people. There’s no need to say it. However what’s more interesting is how much do we, as viewers, have in common with them?
Given the right circumstances and opportunities, don’t we all want a life of luxury and comfort? Wouldn’t most of us hombres dream to live like eternal frat boys and have as much fun as possible, just because we can? And aren’t we all addicted to something anyway? To me Wolf and Belfort’s character embody the most extreme of our desires and how most of us probably couldn’t resist indulging themselves if the circumstances allowed for it. Belfort is allowed to be pure id. He can do whatever the fuck he wants, because he has money (for a while at least). Don’t we all secretly dream of it, even though we know it leads to destruction? It’s every animalistic aspect human nature amplified to the max. The “potential” to be like him is in all of us.
So that is basically what I think some people disliked about the film: They can’t deal with moral ambiguity. Especially mainstream audiences prefer films that tell you exactly how you should feel, but in the case of Wolf the viewer might be conflicted or unsure what to make of the film. On one hand it’s undeniably extravagant and exhilarating to watch, but on the other hand what the characters do in this film is morally unacceptable and illegal; but what if there was a way of doing it and not getting caught? Still the characters are likable (and sympathetic) on some level. Maybe it’s because they’re so funny. Like most Scorsese characters they’re also a bit stupid and never know when to stop.
What leads to Belfort’s downfall eventually is his greed and his inflated ego. There’s a clear point in the film where he could step back and have a good life, with a few compromises mind you, but still: He could retire and enjoy the rest of his life with his family. A happy ending. But of course have you ever seen a Scorsese film with a “happy ending”? It’s never enough for Belfort and until he hits rock bottom and learns the hard way there’s no redemption for him. In a way he’s forced to change, because he gets busted, so I don’t know if there’s ever any real redemption for him (in the film at least).
Speaking of the film in more technical terms I was mostly impressed by the edition, because as I said the film is never boring. I am stunned that Thelma Schoonmaker wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but fuck the Oscars. I loved how the drug scenes were filmed. It almost made me dizzy. I think so many films make drug use seem cartoony and funny, but in Wolf Scorsese simply shows you how real drug use looks like. Best drug use portrayal in a film, but not only that the film’s frenetic pace reflects what it’s like to be on cocaine: The rush, the high and the feeling of being invincible (like Tony Montana in Scarface).
Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are exceptionally good in this film, especially Hill who’s not playing the usual version of himself here. The film is also famous for a record use of the word fuck, which still pales compared to how many times Scorsese’s characters say I mean in voice-overs. What else? Oh, I love that Spike Jonze is in this film. Did you notice him? He has a small cameo as Dwayne, DiCaprio’s new boss in Long Island. I think it’s perfect that he’s in this film considering that he’s the co-creator of Jackass and some of the stunts Belfort and his amigos pull, are very reminiscent of MTV’s hit show. This also marks the third film in the Oscar race that has Jonze attached to it (the other two being Her of course and ‘Bad Grandpa’).
In conclusion I highly recommend The Wolf of Wall Street as an entertaining portrayal of debauchery and excess. It’s definitely one of my favorite Scorsese and 2013 films. The American Dream through the backdoor (so to speak), was a big theme this past year, with movies like The Bling Ring, Pain & Gain and Spring Breakers. Many auteurs were and surely will continue to be concerned with this issue, because it is timely. To me films like Wolf help us understand ourselves a bit better. I have high hopes for Scorsese’s feature projects. Wolf feels like film that a young director would have done. There’s so much joy and life in it. I hope that means we’ll get many more Martin Scorsese pictures in the future.
8 out of 10