“In many ways I find this to be Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest performance of his career.”
It would appear that the marketing of The Wolf of Wall Street and the final product ended up contradicting each other in an intriguing way rather than in a distracting one. Case in point, the film’s first trailer utilized Kanye West’s briskly-paced Black Skinhead from his highly-anticipated, critically acclaimed album “Yeezus.” The song is special because it’s blatant but also very ambiguous and the album it’s on is predicated off of artistic minimalism. Look at The Wolf of Wall Street‘s theatrical poster, which is nothing more than an orange sheet with bold black text stamped on stating the title, the lead actors, and the writer and the director.
Now look at the finished product; The Wolf of Wall Street is a rousing, exciting, and very in-your-face exercise in blatant, hard-edged filmmaking by a cinematic legend. Much like reviewing Steven McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, I can’t help but feel every word of praise I’m giving the film is either overblown or shortchanging. The film is another Scorsese’s masterwork, unlike one he has made before, but definitely bearing the brushstrokes of his original films.
The film chronicles the rise and demise of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who idolized the rich as a child and jumped at the first opportunity to fulfill his desire for affluence – a gig as a broker on Wall Street. He was taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) at first, who teaches him that it doesn’t matter if the broker’s clients make out with a cent as long as their commission was strong and plentiful. However, only after a short while is Belfort a victim of a drastic market crash. He rebounds in the much-less glamorous lifestyle of being a penny stock broker, this time receiving 50% commission on any sale rather than the 1% he received under Hanna.
He builds up a loyal clue of misfits, including the roly poly Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who quits his job upon meeting Belfort and seeing his $72,000 pay-stub from a month’s work. With the help of several other oddball associates, they become multi-millionaires, building Stratton Oakmont, their own company predicated on privileged misbehavior, as well as coming in contact with corruption, global banking, adultery, money laundering, and gang-ties all in tried and true Scorsese fashion.
The theme of this story is excess and self-fulfillment without moral/ethical limits; doing things big or not doing them at all. “There going to need to send the National Guard or the SWAT team to bring this company down!,” Belfort boldly declares to his fully-evolved company that grew from about five dedicated employees to now dozens, if not hundreds. His company has grown from a small-scale operation to a global entity, extending everything beyond anyone’s original plans.
The excess element comes when we see just how Belfort parties, so much so, that it’s difficult to decide whether DiCaprio threw a bigger bash as Belfort or as Jay Gatsby in the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel several months back. Belfort gets hundreds of thousands of dollars a week and each week the money is used to buy lavish things or to be tossed around as confetti off of the yacht he bought his wife (Margot Robbie). Robbie’s role here may be criticized for being shortchanged and reduced to nothing but a beautiful blonde with perfect assets but, before you say anything about it, what was she to Belfort? A sight for sore eyes that was good for a rough round of sex and something to snort cocaine off. She was a possession, like Belfort’s helicopter, beautiful house, and white Ferrari.
The Wolf of Wall Street brilliantly illustrates an element that needed to be examined with this material and that is the idea of self-consumption and fulfillment beyond any moral or ethical beliefs. Belfort has no morality at all and Scorsese details this through the ways Belfort interacts with people close to him. He seems to not think of his wife has a human, nor his close friend Donny, who he tosses around, uses, and verbally assaults frequently. There is nothing Belfort won’t do to increase the amount in his bank.
Consider the scene where Belfort is trying to sell a cheap stock with virtually no potential over the phone to an optimistic customer who clearly knows little about stocks or financial investments. DiCaprio performs a hilarious scene of physical comedy, miming obscene gestures while the customer makes up his mind and is discussing business. Behind him is his team, laughing and making snide remarks. This is the essence of the business of stock and finance; no matter if you’re selling on NASDAQ or penny stocks, the brokers don’t care about you, your finances, your decision-making, or anything about you. They’re in it for themselves, and in Belfort’s case, with his pervasive drug use, it doesn’t seem like he cares much about himself either.
Despite everything unlikable about Belfort – his attitude, his lack of humanity, his absence of morality, and his complete disregard for anyone else’s opinion but his own – we, the audience, still find a strange, indescribable thing fascinating about him. Maybe it’s his determination, the aforementioned traits all rolled into one human, or his charisma, but it’s something hard to articulate. Clearly Scorsese admires him as well because he never attempts to condemn his lead character. He lets the characters learn for themselves, allowing them to fall and struggle on their own. Never does it feel like Scorsese or writer Terence Winter, who deserves more credit than he’ll likely get, are trying to bring these characters down or damn their actions. They allow the characters to do that job themselves.
In many ways I find this to be Leonardo DiCaprio’s finest performance of his career. The film requires him to do so much – be maniacal, charismatic, phony, completely outlandish, a physical performer, and absolutely absurd – and provides him with such a bland archetype to start with (an evil stockbroker). DiCaprio takes that cheapened stereotype and runs with it, creating the most exciting anti-hero in the last ten years of cinema. Include numerous fourth wall breaks and a pleasant narration and you have a perfect performance. Can we get an “Oscar winner” to go before DiCaprio’s name on posters and in trailers now?
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that is completely bonkers, narcissistic, and unabashedly ridiculous. It’s the first time Martin Scorsese seems to actively pursue and achieve comedic heights in a film about a very serious, dirty subject matter. At one-hundred and seventy-nine minutes, it races past and its release on Christmas is only better. Nothing says good tidings and the Christmas spirit like greed, self-absorption, and privileged misbehavior at the expense of countless others. The film is as good as Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay to one of his films.
Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic