The Wolf of Wall Street transports us back to late-1980s/early-1990s New York City, where Queens boy Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has been tirelessly working since his youth to achieve the American dream: getting filthy rich in the financial services industry. Unfortunately, Jordan’s debut on Wall Street came at a time when the market was going through one of its biggest downturns, leaving the hungry and ambitious young man in a career wilderness with no sense of direction.
Looking for a path through the woods, Jordan sniffs out work at a small penny-stock firm – a place filled with the type of schlubs who have never seen a real wolf at work. Within months Jordan is making money hand over fist, and he quickly moves on to a grander vision: opening a trading firm composed of his buddies and other roughneck salesmen who don’t mind swindling people in pursuit of personal gain. But with drugs, money, women and all-around excess overflowing his life, Jordan’s reign as “The Wolf of Wall Street” is soon threatened by a coup d’état led by a relentless FBI agent (Kyle Chandler).
Marking the fifth collaboration between master filmmaker Martin Scorsese and leading man Leaonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street is nothing less than a brilliant and nightmarish portrait of the true face behind America’s greed culture, which manages to impress, amuse, offend and outright terrify – often all at once. It does to the tribal circle of the financial services industry what Goodfellas did to the tribe of the Italian mafia – and arguably does it better than Goodfellas (certainly better than the similarly themed American Hustle).
On the surface, The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy character study that is soaked in grime. Adapted from the memoir of the same name by the real Jordan Belfort, the script by Boardwalk Empire creator Terrence Winter uses voice-over narration as a framing device (like Goodfellas) in order to allow Belfort’s story to unfold “in his own language,” so to speak. Both the voice-over narration and scenes of ensemble dialogue are rattled off with an acerbic and foul-mouthed frankness that is almost poetic in its sheer level of crassness – and also darkly funny for a surprising amount of the film’s 3-hour runtime. As far as raunch-comedies go, this is one of the snappier and wittier ones made in a while – who knew Scorsese and Winter could beat the Farrelly Brothers at their own game?
However, in the hands of one of the most masterful visual storytellers there is, what is a raunch-com/biopic on the surface is transformed into something much more significant and relevant. Behind the lowbrow façade, Wolf of Wall Street is actually a brilliant deconstruction of the Alpha-dog, “Kill to eat” mentality that not only drives Wall Street, but has become, in some ways, the driving philosophy of America’s modern greed culture. A sharp critical eye will notice the seams of great filmmaking at work – including the implementation of thematically relevant pop-culture staples (songs, films, etc.), as well as visual motifs and metaphors meant to convey the deeper thematic subtext of the film.
For example: there is a reverse point-of-view shot of Belfort’s acolytes gathered in front of him that recurs throughout the film – a crowd which evolves from a handful of blue-collar schmoes in an old garage to (eventually) a packed hall full of admirers from all over the world. Much of the film is likewise sequenced according to circular experiences of manic debauchery the characters engage in over and over – starting in the high-fantasy of hedonistic allure, but slowly devolving into a macabre and perverse circus of amoral indulgence and grotesque behavior.
However, even during the most disgustingly raunchy or absurdly bizarre sequences in the film (see: those soon-to-be-infamous quaaludes scenes), there is some sort of visual or auditory evidence that this is all being done with clear purpose and intent. This film pushes things way past the point of decency – past the point of envy or admiration but never believability – and that’s the entire point of the commentary.
By the time Belfort goes through his inevitable fall (and subsequent resurrection), the man has become something so grotesque and off-putting that the lack of character development in the script can clearly be seen as a binding and damning statement – a frightful declaration that says, “Here America, this is your dark heart!” in much the same way that Daniel Plainview had thoroughly horrified us by the time he made his declaration of being “finished,” while squatted in his own slovenly mess.
In the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, the most frightening thing is not that this all happened (it did); or that it happened this way (it did); it’s that it might be (read: definitely is) still happening this way: the perverse mania the movie showers us in hasn’t been cured at all – it’s become an airborne contagion that is globally widespread and all-encompassing. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, “Greed is good, and now it seems it’s legal,” and judging by WoWS, we should all be fundamentally terrified about that reality.
Serving as the embodiments of this mania that has defined an era, are Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill in the central roles of Jordan Belfort and his longtime friend/associate, Donnie Azoff, respectively. Both actors are tasked with occupying their extensive screen time with an almost non-stop burn of manic debauchery, expressed through vocabulary that would make a pirate blush. Hill continues to prove that his abilities extended well beyond low-brow comedy; though to be fair, it could be argued that his role – with its banter and absurdity – is exactly that. Still, he’s great in it, and steals scenes left and right whenever he’s in them.
Leo has the more complicated task of balancing the grotesqueness of Belfort’s personality with moments of real charisma and insight – as well as the dry wit and meta comedy employed by the version of Belfort who narrates the tale. DiCaprio shines bright on all three fronts, without question.
The supporting cast is a mix of breakout performers (Walking Dead star Jon Bernthal as a Belfort’s friend/bag man, or Pan Am star Margot Robbie as a trophy wife vixen); a few hilarious and winking cameo roles (Matthew McConaughey as a Belfort’s Wall Street mentor, or Rob Reiner as his hot-tempered father, to name a few); and a few reliable actors bolstering some key supporting roles (Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent, or The Artist star Jean Dujardin as a corrupt Swiss banker). In short, the movie has a fantastic ensemble, each of whom is put the best use of his/her abilities, with nary a weak link to be found.
In the end, The Wolf of Wall Street is an outrageous and repugnant reflection of something very real – and very rotten – at the core of our society. Some people will inevitably be so put off by the harsh composition of the message that they fail to heed the importance of that message; but in presenting so much of the bad and the ugly behind Wall Street so unflinchingly, Scorsese has crafted an insightful – and important – deconstruction of post-millennial America’s moral erosion. These are the barbarians at our gates.
The Wolf of Wall Street is in theaters Christmas Day. It is 180 minutes long and is Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.
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