It’s been a long time since a movie made me feel genuine ill will towards its protagonists. Considering I sat through Spring Breakers and Grown Ups 2 in 2013, that’s quite a feat. There’s a scene in Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster opus where one of the main characters almost chokes to death on a piece of ham and I was on Team Ham the whole way.
Of course The Wolf of Wall Street immediately deserves comparisons with Goodfellas and Casino, perhaps as the bastard child of an unofficial trilogy. Yes, it’s not technically about the mob we’ve come to know and love through Scorsese’s masterpieces but considering that since the 80s, Wall Street fat cats blatantly stole a hell of a lot more than any wise guy ever could from the pockets of millions of hard working Americans, it wasn’t only expected that bankers and brokers would turn into the pop culture mobsters of the 21st Century, it was inevitable.
The Scarfaces and Sopranos of new will come fully equipped with broker licenses and business smiles, one hand extended forward for a hearty handshake, the other hiding the eventual knife to be gleefully inserted into your back at a later opportunity.
Many films already dealt with the results of unchecked greed of capitalism within our financial system with their own emotional approach. There’s been anger (Capitalism: A Love Story), disdain (Inside Job), moral indignation (Wall Street) and even envy (Boiler Room). Scorsese’s approach stands out above the rest because the driving emotion within its thematic engine seems to be that of overwhelming pity.
The more Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the hedonistic, drug, booze and sex addicted millionaire broker who’d feel right at home as a petulant man-child emperor in ancient Rome (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the real Belfort is a direct descendant of Caligula) breaks the fourth wall in order to brag ceaselessly about his giant piles of money, his hot wife and insanely expensive home, the less I envied him.
I think the main reason for this is the utter contempt Scorsese, DiCaprio, screenwriter Terence Winter (Creator of Boardwalk Empire) and even the real Jordan Belfort, who wrote the memoir the film is based on, has for the character. He’s not much more than a parasite in human clothing, a caricature of a man without a single redeeming value.
Usually this kind of criticism implies depthless writing and thoughtless execution but in this case, the punishment perfectly fits the crime. Any attempt to humanize this walking wastebasket would have felt false and forced.
No matter how many atrociously violent acts they committed, Scorsese always felt at least some affection towards his gangster characters. This was because as vile as they could be, they had a moral code. That code might have been "F—k you, pay me", but it was a code nevertheless. Jordan Belfort has no morals, or a code. He’s only a spending, screwing and snorting machine.
In this sense he reminded me of the protagonist from Kubrick’s underrated Barry Lyndon. Just like the way Kubrick constructed a classic period piece around an irredeemable leech, Scorsese places Belfort smack dab in the middle of a loose remake of Goodfellas with orgies, a hilarious Quaalude addiction, all kinds of limitless hedonism and of course, midget tossing.
After losing his job as a broker during the brief financial meltdown of 1987, Belfort discovers the wonders of selling penny stocks, which is basically a full time con job separating working class rubes from their hard-earned cash by making tiny companies working out of their mommy’s garages sound like the next best thing. As his business grows, Belfort hires his degenerate friends, among them Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a deviant who married his first cousin because he really wanted to "Bang her".
Of course they make more money than they know what to do with. What follows is a three-hour chronicle of impeccably paced, often uncomfortably hilarious and always engaging trip through insanity brought on by narcissism and self-entitlement.
There’s a brief attempt at humanizing Belfort during a scene where he gives a speech about helping an employee with finances when she needed it. But then you realize he’s the one who brought the story up as a way of bragging about what an awesome guy he is, even his two minutes of humanity given to him within the three-hour running time is yet again marred by his inflated ego.
Coming off of his movie-star-smooth yet honestly dull as hell performance in The Great Gatsby, DiCaprio presents a brave performance for an A-List star as he strips the character from any possible shred of dignity. The performances are pitch perfect all around.
At first glance, the heightened and over-the-top presentation of the Wall Street lifestyle might make us think we’re in satire territory. Satire requires an exaggeration of a subject matter in order to draw even more attention to its flaws. However, from what we already know about Wall Street, every bit of development in the film feels real and rings true. Scorsese merely attempts to present this world without sugarcoating it the way the tepid Wall Street sequel did.
As much as I loved every minute of The Wolf of Wall Street, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, especially not as a Christmas release (What the hell was Warner Bros thinking?).
I expect a lot of shock and disappointment among the general movie going audience who decide to spend valuable time during their holiday vacation to see a movie by a "distinguished" director and star and end up laying eyes on their beloved Jack Dawson sucking cocaine from a prostitute’s butthole within a minute of running time. However, it could serve as the perfect choice as a post New Year’s nihilistic trip down the rabbit hole of hate. Just don’t forget to bring the Quaaludes.