The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey
Review: 4 stars (of five)
It’s pretty easy to break down Martin Scorcese’s new film, which adapts the autobiography of cosmic-level Wall Street scumbag Jordan Belfort. On the one hand, it has no reason to exist, as a story. It wallows in the excesses of Belfort’s Wall Street-adjacent stock manipulations and long-form confidence games in the late eighties and early nineties. It documents a rise and fall without providing any lessons, any cause for reflection. Neither the main character nor the audience are enlightened in any way, and thus the film is an artistic failure.
On the other hand, it’s a hypnotic, masterful piece of filmmaking. Despite a three-hour running time, there’s nothing I wanted to see cut, no flabby middle section that could’ve been excised in bulk. It’s a master class in what can be done with a camera, with actors, with a scene, and on a moment-by-moment basis, it’s riveting, if you’ve got the stomach for the sheer skeeziness of the goings on. Thus, I reveled in it for 180 straight minutes, but almost certainly will never watch it again.
A fascinating aspect of the film is the way it’s played as comedy. Nearly every scene is played by the actors for laughs, and only Scorecese’s overall control and the dark nature of this film’s world maintain the film as a more dramatic work overall. Take for example a scene where DiCaprio’s Belfort is in the midst of a furious argument with his wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), over infidelity. As Naomi, Robbie looks like the kind of Playboy centerfold a director hires to dress up a party scene, but Scorcese gets an excellent performance from her in a key supporting role. Naomi responds to Belfort’s infidelity by emphasizing her own sexiness–and informing Belfort that he’ll never touch her again. This reduces Belfort to whimpering and begging, on the floor of his toddler’s bedroom, for even a glimpse of Naomi’s body, and as she playfully, but firmly, teases him, we cut away to discover that they’re being watched on their in-home security system. Not only does the sight of a couple tough security goons watching this scene make a comical spectacle all the more ridiculous, Scorcese pushes it one level further by having Belfort point out the camera and tell Naomi that she’s all but masturbating on camera for her security staff, which sends her off in a rage and collapses all the men involved into laughter. That’s a lot of effort to up the comedy level of a scene with a lot of emotional conflict as well, and Scorcese is similarly unrestrained throughout.
The scene also points out the biggest story flaw: It’s all spectacle, as Belfort not only doesn’t come to terms with his misbehavior, but gets the last laugh. Nothing is learned, nothing changes, nothing matters. The story has the artistic resonance of reality TV. By the end of the film, Belfort has lost his empire and done time, and we’re to probably understand that being reduced to low-rung self-help sales seminars, amid the very kinds of mouth-breathing suckers he used to rip off, is a kind of halfway hell for DiCaprio’s character. Only, y’know, it’s a pretty easy, quasi-celebrity gig that takes him all over the world, and he wrote a book that got made into one of the biggest movies of the year. I didn’t rip anyone off for billions and I still have to show up at an office five days a week, so one man’s purgatory is another man’s reward for sin.
In addition to working a camera with gusto and grace, Scorcese brings a great cast together. DiCaprio owns the film, has he has in most of this director’s outings in the past decade. (If he could’ve played a little younger, Scorecese probably would’ve given DiCaprio the title role in Hugo, too …) Robbie surprises, and Rob Reiner makes a rare on-camera appearance as DiCaprio’s father. In a better story, he’d be the moral center of the film, but here, his exhortations about “chickens coming home to roost” are pretty weak sauce (but served by a fine actor). Jonah Hill leads a deliberately comical cast of schlubs and misfits whom DiCaprio carves into a ruthless–but always entertaining–criminal enterprise.
Always entertaining. That’s Scorcese’s problem here. He loves this Belfort guy, and he loves the orgiastic excesses. The film opens with a midget-throwing contest. DiCaprio does the broadest physical comedy of his life crawling to his car, writhing like a fish out of water because he’s so stoned he can’t stand, yet must drive home. A lot of really horrible stuff is presented as lighthearted fun here. And while sure, the director has to work with what’s in the jerk’s book, it’s an artistic choice to put such a loving stamp of approval on this dirtbag, and to never show the consequences, all the little people whose lives Belfort merrily ruined.
In fact, the film is reluctant to tarnish Belfort even by Belfort’s own twisted, stunted standards. As the law closes in on DiCaprio, there’s a lot of back and forth about whether he’ll rat out all his friends. Scorcese puts the decision to turn rat, then to back out and protect his friends, on camera. Then he skips over the part where Belfort eventually does rat out everyone in exchange for a lesser sentence. What probably stands as the greatest failure or sin in the mind of the character, at least, is not portrayed, because it’s also the character’s lowest moment (by some measures, at least). That’s a pretty big story failure.
Yet I’m giving the thing four stars because it’s so goddamned entertaining to watch. Underneath the part that says “four stars,” all the rest of this is one caveat after another to tell you that your mileage may vary, and also to make me feel better about enjoying this film much more than its story or its lead character deserve.