December 18, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY Film Review: “The Wolf of Wall Street”


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET:  Buy A Ticket – Scorsese’s Boisterous Epic of Bottomless Greed

The key sequence in Martin Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET arrives about 2 hours into its 3-hour length.  (No meaningful spoilers here.)  The resoundingly crooked financier Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his equally bent sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) have taken what they don’t yet realize is an amount of quaaludes that, even with their astounding tolerance built over years of extreme drug abuse, is just too damn much.  Word comes in that a money laundering scheme that involves millions of their dollars may be going south, and just as Belfort is trying to absorb the information… the… pills… kick… in.  Within seconds, Belfort is unable to speak, to walk, even to stand.  To make his grunting, laborious way back to his car, he has to crawl and drag himself, as though he has prehensile flippers instead of arms and legs.  The scene is played for big slapstick laughs and it gets them (DiCaprio is fearless), but the underlying point is clear:  these guys are animals.  Actually, “animals” is too kind a word–they’re beasts, creatures of pure want and instinct that have skipped a few steps of evolution, functioning by way of lizard brains that only register the basest desires.

Wolf is going to be compared everywhere to Goodfellas and Casino, since it’s another in Scorsese’s epic canvases about criminal behavior, rocketed as always by Thelma Schoonmaker’s super-charged editing and the songs selected by the director and Executive Music Producer Robbie Robertson, but its tone is ultimately very different than that of the earlier movies, just as it’s different from Raging Bull and The Aviator, two other large-scale Scorsese biographies about powerful, successful men who were fatally out of control.  This time, Scorsese and his screenwriter, Terence Winter (the two of them previously collaborated on the pilot for Boardwalk Empire) has little compassion or respect for his protagonists.  Those other men might have been scum, or at least dangerously unhinged, but Scorsese was fascinated by their flawed, self-destructive brand of humanity.  In Wolf, he’s fascinated by just the opposite–every scene of the movie seems to ask Seriously–can you believe what assholes these guys are?  In both Goodfellas and Casino, there were sequences that lovingly detailed exactly how their criminal enterprises worked, admiringly providing tiny graduate seminars in the nuts and bolts of being a small time or a big time gangster.  In Wolf, there are several scenes where Belfort, speaking directly to camera, starts to explain how he’s making his money–and then breaks off, saying a variation of “Who gives a shit?”  He’s speaking for Scorsese and Winter, of course, who understand Belfort’s schemes perfectly well but won’t give him the dignity they’d extend to a working-class mobster.  Unlike American Hustle, another dark comedy about greed and excess, Wolf refuses to grace its characters with complex emotions, let alone sympathy.

All of this gives Wolf of Wall Street a moralistic edge that’s new for Scorsese; for all its just-barely-not-NC-17 hooker sex and its depictions of titanic drug use, it may be his most Catholic film.  (Scorsese has acknowledged his own period of excess in the 1970s, and one wonders if there’s more than a little mea culpa going on here.)  That air of condemnation finally gets monotonous over the course of the movie’s 3 hours.  Since Scorsese won’t let Belfort or anyone else exist as a developed character, and there’s plenty of incident in the script but little plot, Wolf just repeats the same pattern of spectacular, mindless self-indulgence over and over on an escalating scale, with more drugs, more sex, more repellent behavior piling up.  It’s not that the film’s events aren’t largely factual (the script is based on Belfort’s own book, and Belfort–who appears in a cameo near the end–consulted on the film), but that they’re unrelieved–it’s like Scorsese is conducting a Scared Straight intervention and we’re the ones being yelled at.

On a scene-by-scene basis, Wolf is hellishly entertaining much of the time.  Scorsese’s discovered his inner Judd Apatow, and DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have a high-octane time riffing off each other and spinning wild, loopy improvisations.  (Like Apatow, Scorsese sometimes lets them run on too long.)  The script gives DiCaprio one set-piece after another, and he performs here like a man possessed, as though he’s managed to elevate his own heart rate in front of the cameras; it’s a brilliant but uninflected performance, aside from a few scenes where people like Matthew McConaughey (as Belfort’s first Wall Street mentor) or Kyle Chandler (as an FBI agent who doesn’t let Belfort fool him for a minute) bring a different kind of energy for DiCaprio to bounce off of.  Margot Robbie, as Belfort’s second wife Naomi (she was on ABC’s short-lived Pan Am) does a thoroughly impressive Queens accent for an actress who hails from Australia, and she holds her own with DiCaprio in intense scene after scene.  Rob Reiner, as Belfort’s father, has a classic introductory sequence, although after that he’s mostly relegated to being the straight man who sputters over how irresponsible everyone else is being.  Jean Dujardin and Joanna Lumley brings smooth humor to their roles as, respectively, a disdainful Swiss banker and Naomi’s British aunt, and there’s a huge supporting cast of thieves and suckers.

As is always the case with Scorsese’s projects, the technical credits are superb.  Apart from Schoonmaker’s editing and the music, Bob Shaw’s massive production design, carrying the action to every kind of boorish luxury, is a marvel, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, working for the first time with Scorsese, provides expert, mobile camerawork, even if his work (perhaps deliberately) is less beautiful than the look of other Scorsese films.

Scorsese is one of the world’s great filmmakers, but Wolf, while constantly jaw-dropping and often wildly enjoyable, isn’t one of his great films.  Stupefied contempt as the controlling emotion behind a film only takes an artist so far, and disapproval, especially stretched over 3 hours, is a limitation.  No one who sees The Wolf of Wall Street will soon forget it, but Jordan Belfort’s investors probably haven’t forgotten him, either.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."