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Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Premise: An adaptation of the memoir by Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street stockbroker who made a fortune and lived a life of debauchery by defrauding investors.

What Works: The Wolf of Wall Street is a Martin Scorsese picture and it demonstrates the filmmaking skill that audiences have come to expect from the director’s work. This picture is excellently shot and edited and it pops with energy. That energy is largely due to the movie’s potent mix of fast-paced filmmaking, masculine posturing, sexually debauched episodes, and its consistent and outrageous humor. The Wolf of Wall Street is the closest Martin Scorsese has ever come to making a full-fledged comedy and it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The movie is essentially Animal House but with more money, a more attractive cast, and a bigger scale. Its humor aside, this is familiar territory for Scorsese and within his filmography, The Wolf of Wall Street is stylistically and thematically closest to Goodfellas, the 1990 crime picture that tracked the ascent of Henry Hill through the hierarchy of the mob. Like that film, The Wolf of Wall Street is both the story of an individual succeeding in the criminal lifestyle and a caricature of a masculine subculture. The film is at its best in the first hour, in which Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, enters the world of Wall Street, learns the ropes, forms his own company, and rises to the top of his profession. This portion of the picture follows the Horatio Alger formula, in which a member of the lower class rises to the top of the heap, but like many gangster films it twists the ethos of that formula on its head. This section of the film is its most interesting and it is breathlessly paced. The Wolf of Wall Street also benefits from some terrific casting, especially in the supporting roles. The most notable is Jonah Hill as executive vice president Donnie Azoff. Hill brings his comic talents to bear but he is also a very real character. Possessing similar reality are a lot of the smaller background roles. The actors playing the staff of the blue collar penny stockbroking firm and the white collar Stratton Oakmont firm fill out their parts perfectly and they add a lot of character and credibility to the picture.

What Doesn’t: Although The Wolf of Wall Street is comparable to Goodfellas, it is inferior to that film and on its own merits it has serious defects. The movie is too long; a lot of sequences do not lead anywhere, it gets quite repetitive with one scene of decadence followed by another, and the movie lacks tension, especially in its second hour. The central flaw of The Wolf of Wall Street is found in its title character, Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The corruption of Belfort is not done in a compelling way; he transitions from a responsible married man to a greedy, drug addicted, womanizing maniac with little gradation or hesitation. Part of the fault is in the writing but it is also a problem of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. DiCaprio is really a two note actor; he can be suave and he can be violently insane but that is about it and his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street trends toward the latter. Like DiCaprio’s performance, everything in The Wolf of Wall Street is turned up to eleven but neither the title character nor the movie itself ever has a Dark Night of the Soul moment. The result is that the narcotic and sexual debauchery, as grandiose as it may be, becomes flat. That may be the point. Scorsese’s intent seems to be that opulence is not all it’s cracked up to be but that is a cliché point, one made better and more interestingly (and more succinctly) in the original Dawn of the Dead, I Love You, Phillip Morris, and American Psycho, among other films. Despite the criticisms that others have made against The Wolf of Wall Street, that it is excessive or that it glorifies criminal behavior, the biggest problem of The Wolf of Wall Street is that it reveals too little. In its three hour length the only thing the film demonstrates is that Wall Street brokers are sociopaths living debauched lifestyles financed by illegal and immoral means. The same revelation is found in watching the film’s two-and-a-half minute trailer.

Bottom Line: The Wolf of Wall Street is very entertaining, it has some terrific performances, and with respect to its filmmaking craft the movie is undeniably well made. But it is also too long for a movie that reveals so little.

Episode: #472 (January 5, 2014)