THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
To be fair, I missed the first two minutes of the film, though my wife told me all I missed was the main character sniffing cocaine from a naked woman’s ass and him getting a blowjob on the way to his first day at work (and perhaps some dwarf throwing, which I wished more of later on in the film).
The reason I say this is because Martin Scorsese’s latest film, yet another collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio after his detour with Hugo, is not quite dark enough to be as mischievous as possible. For three hours, mayhem runs amuck and ultimately, we’re left with little to think about other than the truth that focused and determined people are capable of anything, including almost insufferable hedonism. In fact, the lead character’s actions in the film would be insufferable to behold if the main character wasn’t as outgoing and outlandish as Jordan Belfort is.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the main character who, at 23, began a life in the stock market and then soon became rich flipping really cheap and useless stocks to people he could manipulate (or “convince”… or “help”) easily enough into buying thousands of dollars of the stuff. What the film doesn’t explore is the failure that comes with these attempts; so while Jordan is certainly good with words and a sterling salesman — with a mind that knows how to get what it wants, I guess — you don’t ever see him or his friends fail at anything. This isn’t a drama about the recession or any time like that, we’re not meant to look at failure; it’s about money and it’s about laughing at the grotesque grandiosity of people with a lot of money and insatiable lusts.
It’s hard to care for a character if they’re as hedonistic as Jordan Belfort though it can be done with some tactful writing and most especially an empathetic performance from the actor playing them, but you can’t say that happens here. There is a lot of charm and energy put into DiCaprio’s Belfort, but it really comes down to what makes him worth watching for three hours. He has sincere emotions at times, more towards the end when things are going wrong and sometimes during extreme moments throughout. Very rarely is Jordan Belfort shown to be a snake — only early on, in one scene where he’s showing his associates how to sell, did I feel he was the greedy and focused person he had to be to get where he wanted — but as the performance went on I felt much of this selfishness was conveyed through a lot of amusing charisma and not through any true viciousness. That might only be a subjective point, though.
At the same time, one could criticize Scorsese’s trademark style for obscuring any true humanity behind Jordan and amplifying the movie into an unreal and cinematic proportion. His panorama, frequent edits from face to face, camera movement toward and away from people and onto events aren’t the best environment for a character study like this to thrive in. On one hand, you see a lot of his face, but on the same token there might be a lot of other scenes that were cut or simply cut away from that would have helped you feel a deeper understanding for his character.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese’s lens always seems like it’s looking for the best and most iconic shot on almost every given take. Sex scenes look pretty bizarre and interesting as we look downward or they are done in slow-motion and the scene where Jonah Hill eats the goldfish could’ve been as effective a million different ways, but is captured in the most iconic way possible. It becomes cumbersome and the room, despite its three hours, does not give you any room to think or breathe.
For what it’s worth it is a very entertaining movie; extremely entertaining for the first while, especially once Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is given his introduction. The way his character is introduced into the film is done in two unforgettable scenes — one where he tells Belfort his wife is his cousin and one where they smoke crack together. These moments are perfectly conveyed by Jonah Hill and by the end of the film, he has encapsulated a very interesting quality beyond his character’s hilarious and outrageous moments; he has molded the text given to him into something entirely unique and a person you might not have expected him to be. Juxtaposed to Jordan Belfort who has no mystery to him and is as blatantly obvious as his actions, it is my opinion that his performance shines as the most consistent best quality the movie has to offer.
Terence Winter’s script (from Jordan Belfort’s memoirs – another way he was able to make money) is extreme. How everything is depicted is so black and white, you’re either a good guy or a bad guy or we’re laughing at you struggling in-between moments. In the lives we see either everything looks good or nothing does. Not the judicial system, not living however you want, not beating the system, not the cops trying to get you, not money, nothing. The whole movie is about money though — Belfort himself will tell you that in the middle of narrating something (which, to be fair, felt like last-minute re-shoots to get the film under three hours) and cuts whatever explanation he was giving off at the knees — so nothing beyond that is understood. It’s money and people being drawn to money, people doing whatever because there is money or because there will be money. There is a stark moment when a secretary has her head shaved early on while her (almost all male) co-workers chant and cheer. We then hear her boss, Jordan Belfort announcing that she’ll be using the money for breast surgery. The Wolf Of Wall Street has the ability to make you think or feel, but it scantly does; it’s mostly about laughter and I guess it could have been more extreme in its humor given the content. But then, they couldn’t release this film under an NC-17 tag.
Like most three hour films, you will find repetition between the good bits. This is the case here. What is funny in the first hour is then pretty much redone in the second and for half of the third. The ideas that are funny can have less clout the more it goes on and so should its momentum, but Scorsese’s whip-like fast editing keeps the film pacing as fast as a drug-addled Jordan Belfort (and he is always on drugs). Sometimes, it feels like Scorsese is vicariously reliving his days of being high through the overwhelming and myriad cocaine and quaalude-fueled sequences and sometimes, it feels like he perfectly captures the feeling of being lost in the land of substances. Mix that together with some iconic comedy set-pieces and some other unforgettable moments and you’ve got one pretty entertaining picture. In retrospect, it might feel as if it lacks a continually undulating cadence, that it is a hodgepodge of extreme events amidst a life we’ve seen portrayed dozens of times in movies, so while the story may lose its momentum, it can be hard to feel it while you’re watching it with Scorsese at the helm.
The rest of the ensemble ranges from wonderful to so-so, as with most of Scorsese’s movies. Although there are some perfectly understood moments displayed by Matthew McConaughey and Kyle Chandler those characters are not shown very much at all. None of the women are really explored besides their naked bodies. Jean Dujardin is very interesting because he keeps whatever his character is thinking to himself — a tough feat to do, one which DiCaprio usually fails at when dabbling with so much narration — and the rest of Belfort’s main crew are wonderful as well. They all provide really perfect support; their chemistry with one and other is felt, but most importantly they seem very assured of their characters and grow with them, which is good because we see quite a bit of them. They all create entirely unique characters – I especially enjoyed Kenneth Choi as Chester Ming, but Jon Bernthal, Ethan Suplee (yes, him!) and P.J. Byrne are all perfect together as well.
Early on – and off-screen – Jordan Belfort gets engaged and then, married. None of this is shown too much. Then, he cheats on his wife with another woman and soon marries her. How does he feel about relationships? Obviously Jordan Belfort is not a man that should be married to anyone but the movie does not soberly address that, so there is a lot of insignificant interaction because there are almost no moments where character interaction actually means anything in terms of emotional weight. These roles are portrayed by very beautiful women but unfortunately without any more depth than that. Not that it matters; those relationships are not being played for an earnest dramatic effect, but more or less a passing one at best. That is until the tail-end of the story where there is emotion imbued into the script, a fight between a struggling man and his wife, but you can only do so much by that point. The drama there is good and real, but it doesn’t elevate the movie beyond the 160 minutes of fun preceding it.
What I feel the film lacks most is a rawness. There are a lot of savage acts thought up and depicted, but they are sent up as slapstick material and played off for laughter. They succeed and this could be considered a real-life Looney Tune, but there is a stark reality beneath the buffoonery which could have been more observed. We get moments of it, but in the end it is just out of reach.
On the sporadic occasion, we will hear Jordan Belfort narrate over a montage that depicts time passing (so we can get to the next most interesting chunk of his life) and he will assert that an associate of his had killed themselves or die because, as we assume, they were unable to live the fast-paced and tumultuous lifestyle Jordan thrives on; that they were so self-indulgent they met with inevitable self-destruction. These sequences only serve to show how unconcerned (or disconnected) Jordan was of the real somberness related to the grand scheme of his life and there is a cockiness about it as well, as there is no dramatic element held and those events unceremoniously brought up and dropped in a matter of a second.
This is a very personable film, but there is not much said about people. We observe plenty, but ultimately we’re left with a kind of ironic ending in which the protagonist asks his audience to sell him a pen, just as Jack did so simply and rationally earlier on, which could mean many things – including “Martin Scorsese doesn’t think the average person is smart enough to sell a pen,” which might be fair but it’s a really insulting thing to say to someone who has just sat through your movie. That’s what I got from it anyway – we’re all looking up at the rich man, because we really are, but the joke’s on us because we all look so plain and dumb compared to him. We’re attending his seminar, but he’s making all the money so we’re the suckers. That might be a defensive thought, but it felt like the screen was reflecting the audience in that moment. If the ending is not that, then it simply means that Jordan Belfort, after three years in prison, is on the up and up and is making his living selling his advice to people again and he will be rich. He knows how to make money and be the person he wants to be. That’s all this movie is about. There is no pensiveness, so there is no moral here.