Writing a review about Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street is, undoubtedly, one of the hardest things I had to do in a very long time, and it’s definitely right up there with writing my friggin’ Bachelor thesis and running a 10K in less than an hour.
No, seriously now, what I find most difficult about reviewing this movie is the rather extreme and radical reactions that it has raised among critics, Scorsese fans (yes, I definitely count myself in this category) and the general audience. In a nutshell, it seems people who have watched this movie don’t seem to agree on whether it is: a. An artistic master piece; Or b. A commercial piece of crap. As political beast Frank Underwood of House of Cards (yep, definitely a fan here as well) would probably say, the truth always lies in the gray area… Or does it, in this case…?
When this three-hour marathon was over, and as I sat there while the credits were being shown and the theater lights slowly being dimmed up, I felt a strange combination of restless excitement and a little nausea, topped with a deep discomfort. Now, the excitement and the nausea were easily explained by the hilarious and tragic situations, on the one hand, and heavy substance abuse, on the other hand, Jordan Belfort and his posse put themselves through in almost every scene of the movie. However, I couldn’t figure out what that discomfort bit was all about, so I decided not to give much thought to it and to go about my day as usual, occasionally reading a movie review here and there trying to (unsuccessfully) make sense of it all. It wasn’t until later that night, while casually discussing the movie at a dinner-party with a couple of friends who had already seen it the night before, that it actually hit me. See, my friends didn’t seem to agree with something that I had taken completely for granted, so much so I hadn’t been able to fully process it until then: that the movie was an extremely sarcastic and bitter critic of Wall Street lifestyle, both on a political and a social dimension. But here’s where the funny part was: the movie’s ironic outlook had sunk in so emotionally deep that I couldn’t come up with a single rational argument to sustain my point of view. Could my friends actually be right? Had I overshot it this time?
Now, those of you who know me a little probably also know that that doesn’t happen to me very often or, at least, definitely not as often as you would like. However, those who know me even better and are aware of how stubborn I can get with these sorts of things won’t have any trouble picturing the mental turmoil I went through during the next couple of days trying to come up with arguments to prove my friends wrong (or myself right, not quite sure yet!). After much thought, I can honestly say without the slightest shadow of a doubt that The Wolf of Wall Street is the most merciless, ferocious and delightfully honest punch the movie industry has ever thrown at the financial district’s eccentric yet ethically and politically questionable practices and way of life since the 2007-2008 crisis. Now, there’s been significant resistance to this line of interpretation, based on several strong points regarding real-life Belfort’s story (for instance, his humble origins, the sarcastic nature of his nick name, or even Stratton Oakmont’s location in Long Island, far away from the financial district’s ups and downs), the genre chosen by Scorsese to tell the story (the comedy genre), a seemingly erratic and disorganized narrative, and an overall emotional disconnection between the audience and the main characters (which would make any potential message miss its mark). Let’s go over these arguments real quick.
So, “why male models?”, or, in this case, why Jordan Belfort? If Scorsese intended to criticize Wall Street, why would he take a character sitting on its sidelines instead of taking the 100%-direct full-blown Gordon-Gecko approach? Well, the political and economic context is clearly very different than what it was nearly thirty years ago, when Wall Street came out back in 1987. Not only that, but the fictional pieces I know of that have tried to take that approach since the 2007-8 market collapse have, in my humble opinion, utterly failed to deliver a strong message in this regard. I’m referring to Oliver Stone’s 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, as well as J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011). I think choosing Belfort as the center-piece of his work allowed Scorsese to place himself in a relatively safe place to conduct his attack from (kind of like guerrilla war tactics), whilst strategically ensuring himself plausible deniability and avoiding any financial pressures any block buster such as The Wolf of Wall Street could be exposed to. Moreover, Belfort is the living embodiment of everything that is wrong with the system: he is a greedy, power-driven, thrill-seeking, sexually-obsessed and substance-addicted maniac who is willing to screw everything and everyone on their way to get what he wants. I, for one, could not think of a more brilliant or crude depiction of your typical Wall Street one-percenter, completely consistent with Charles Ferguson’s depiction in one of my favorite documentaries on the 2007-8 market fallout, The Inside Job(2010).
A very Greek and wise man (Aristotle) once said:
Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.
In light of these words, it would seem as though comedy is the perfect fit for sarcastic enterprises. But let us not just take Aristotle’s word for it. If you think about it for a second, doesn’t the act of laughter imply a form of distance between the viewer and what he’s witnessing? I certainly believe it does. So, what better way to convey a solid message than to drag your insanely deranged characters through every possible mud pool imaginable and get your audience to laugh their arses off at them? In the Lemmon Quaaludes 714 scene, in which Jordan is unable to walk or even talk after taking way too many lemmons and tries to get into his Lamborghini, you can actually picture Martin Scorsese’s bitterly laughing his heart out at Jordan’s predicament.
And don’t even get me started on Matthew McConaughey’s brief yet incredibly powerful and hilarious appearance in the movie as Mark Hanna, a completely alienated businessman who introduces Jordan Belfort’s to the trading business and to a rather strange form of chanting!
Finally, the (what I believe to be 100% intentional) viewers’ total lack of empathy towards the main characters in the plot seems to effectively clear the way of any sentimental considerations or subjective preferences that could undermine the movie’s general message.
Last but not least, behind its apparent chaotic structure, if you look a bit closer, the movie is actually built around a nearly symmetrical up-pointing triangle with Steve Madden’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) at the summit, and parallel inverted events on either side.
Indeed, from the edges to the summit, you have: Belfort entering / Belfort quitting the trading business, divorcing Teresa / divorcing Naomi, building Strattmont Oakmont / breaking it apart, acquisition / loss of material and luxury assets (the Lamborghini, the yacht, the mansion) as a symbol of his rising and then declining fortune, success, and power. You get the picture.
In this sense, the last scene in the movie, in which a now trading-retired Jordan asks a random member of the audience to sell him his own pen during a conference, could not be fully understood, IMHO, without this rather symmetrical narration structure. During this scene, Scorsese goes out of his way to show you Belfort’s target demographics with generously long close-ups of people in the audience. If you look close enough, you can see they belong to the exact same demographics than the people who he starts selling penny stock to at the beginning of the movie. The message could not be clearer, even with director commentaries on: Belfort, after managing to sell stock and assets to the wealthiest people in America, is, in the end, exactly where he started. Nothing’s changed: penniless, powerless, bankrupt, so much so the lyrics from a beloved Metallica song come to mind: “Where’s your crown, king nothing?”
Still Not Convinced?
Still not convinced about all this? Check out Martin Scorsese’s own words about his intentions behind the movie:
“I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, that we’re indicting it.
The book was a cautionary tale and if you sit through the end of the film, you’ll realize what we’re saying about these people and this world, because it’s an intoxicating one.
However, what about the rest of the movie: The cast, the photography, the costumes, etc.? A strong and powerful anti-system message is nice and all, but it is not merely enough to make an enjoyable movie. Indeed, a movie is not a book or an essay. It has a substance and a narrative of its own that should not be ignored or sacrificed for meaning. Well, it is my opinion that the movie also excels in most of those departments.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an incredibly funny, entertaining and well-directed film that will keep you hooked and interested to the very end thanks to an innovative storytelling and Oscar-worthy leading and support performances.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Jordan Belfort, for one, is spot on and yet another confirmation of the great and versatile actor he has become throughout the years. Surely, grade-A directors’ influence such as Scorsese, Allen, Nolan and Tarantino seems to have played an essential part in the actor’s professional evolution. It was deeply disappointed in the Academy’s choice for Best Leading Actor, since I think (no, I know) DiCaprio’s performance was far greater than Matthew Matthew McConaughey’s in Dallas Buyers Club, and I thought the real tough choice was going to be between DiCaprio and Christian Bale for American Hustle. But sadly, it wasn’t, and the Academy seems somehow determined not to give DiCaprio an Oscar, which leaves you wondering about what else could DiCaprio possibly do in order to win that godforsaken statutette.
Jonah Hill’s performance as Donnie Azoff also takes the ball out of the park, and gives the movie a very refreshing and interesting feel. I must admit it was rather a pleasant surprise to see Hill excel as a performer even outside of his comfort zone and experience incarnating comic roles, and I was a bit surprised that he wasn’t awarded with the statuette for “Best Supporting Actor”. However, it is also true that Jared Leto is a great actor and that he did an outstanding job playing Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club, but I’m not 100% sure his performance was Oscar-worthy.
Margot Robbie’s rigid and over-acted interpretation of Naomi Lapaglia, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired and contrasts very heavily with DiCaprio’s and Hill’s overall performance.
The Bottom Line
All in all, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a great and very well acted black comedy, and definitively a must-see for all movie lovers out there, regardless of how much of a fan they are of the director’s previous work. Its tone and singularity constitute a reminiscent of Scorsese’s After Hours (1986), which is undoubtedly one of my favorite comedies of all times.
As for the bad, and this will be a very short paragraph, we believe Scorsese’s indulgent depiction of government and Federal authorities’ involvement and complicity is unrealistic, to say the least. On a similar (but slightly more personal) note, I believe Scorsese is to be “held accountable” for the fact that the movie’s seemingly pantagrueline and festive approach to its subject-matter has kept many of its viewers unaware of its critical outlook on the financial system, which constitutes another negative aspect of this otherwise remarkable movie.
For all the above reasons, we give it a final score of 4 Geekies!
Have you seen this movie? Do tell us what you thought about it in the Comments section below, and don’t forget to share this review if you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it!