The Wolf of Wall Street:
The Wolf of Wall Street is a terrific satire following Jordan Belfort from his first day as a Wall Street stockbroker to a brilliant, (semi-)depraved multi-millionaire to his legal and personal downfall to his rebirth.
I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese. I think it is all but impossible to dislike the majority of his films (he does have some duds) unless you are completely turned off by huge amounts of vulgarity, drug use, sexual content, and violence. Indeed, his films can be incredibly vulgar. Previously, his most vulgar movie probably was Casino, with 428 f-words in about 3 hours, followed by Goodfellas with 300 in 1.5 hours and The Departed with 237 in 1.5 hours. The Wolf of Wall Street blows all of these out of the water, making up for its essential lack of violence with 506 in 3 hours.
But despite this monstrous number and the extensive amounts of drug-use and (mainly) female nudity, The Wolf of Wall Street, though certainly seeming at least somewhat depraved at times, never seems incongruous with its vulgar elements, and even seems to require them the majority of the time. This feat is owed completely to three elements.
Some types of films can rely on their art direction, visual effects, or cinematography to make the film great, but a great satire must be blessed with a great screenplay, great direction, and great performances. The Wolf of Wall Street has all three.
Terence Winter’s (creator of Boardwalk Empire and staff writer for The Sopranos) script is brilliant. Equal parts seriousness and hilarity, it masterfully mixes them into a magnificently over-the-top, rarely, if ever, farcical, film. The final act of the film works so well because the rest of it is so satirical and not farcical. The way some of the episodes are told is brilliant (the Lamborghini scene springs to mind).
Scorsese is rightly considered one of the best directors ever, and he shows why here. Winter’s script, no matter how satirical, could have become farcical if directed incorrectly. Scorsese is no stranger to challenging projects, and directs this film brilliantly. The tone he sets throughout is simply perfect.
Scorsese movies are almost always all about the men, and Wolf is no different. Leonardo DiCaprio, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, gives possibly his best performance ever (The Departed is the competition). The film also could have strayed into farce if the acting had been done incorrectly. As my statement about DiCaprio’s performance indicates, this is not an issue. He is simply brilliant. He appears in probably 85% to 95% of the film, and completely dominates it every second. He is an absolute riot (his crawling scene is brilliance). He is always ACTING, but everything he does is completely believable in creating a complete and surprisingly complex character. Furthermore, his performance in the final act is startlingly powerful.
Overall, the supporting male cast is quite good, even if not truly great. Jonah Hill, as Donnie Azoff, could surprise for an Oscar nomination, and he would be more deserving here than he was for Moneyball, but he is nowhere near my top 10, even. The style he chooses doesn’t work particularly well with the film, as he seems to be underplaying many of the scenes when his usual comedic, over the top style could have worked well, especially since he seems to be going for laughs the entire time, strange given his simultaneous underplaying.
While Hill, despite his large amount of screentime, is simply acceptable (sometimes slightly better), Matthew McConaughey, with just two early scenes to his credit, is my favorite supporting male performance in the film. I love how he has reinvented himself as an actor, and his performance here, specifically in his second scene, is immensely entertaining. He gives great life to Mark Hanna in just about 10 minutes. It’s a case of terrific casting, but also of even going beyond that casting to create a great performance.
The rest of the male supporting cast is pretty good across the board. Rob Reiner is pretty funny in his first scene but is unfortunately subdued the rest of his screentime. Jean Dujardin is characteristically charming but nothing more. Kyle Chandler, who has the ability to be a great actor, is sidelined here, just as he has been since jumping from Friday Night Lights to films, to the law enforcement. His scene on the yacht shows shades of his abilities, but those abilities are never again utilized.
As with most Scorsese films, The Wolf of Wall Street treats most of its female characters (nothing more than appearances, really) as objects for male lust and sexual use. Just as with most other Scorsese film, too, there are a few (sometimes just one) female character(s) that could be considered, in some way, strong and/or complex women (i.e. Lorraine Bracco’s character in Goodfellas and Vera Farmiga’s in The Departed). Margot Robbie portrays Wolf’s, Naomi Lapaglia, very well. She’s stunning but definitely not stupid, and aware of both. Robbie gives her depth, and while she doesn’t necessarily build upon the script all that much, she makes up for it with two great scenes: the teddy bear scene and her final scene. Joanna Lumley, as Naomi’s aunt, Emma, is also pretty good.
With its huge runtime, a huge, but not unexpected plaudit must be given to longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker for her terrific editing job that makes the film feel shorter than it is (though it still does feel long). Rodrigo Prieto also deserves credit for his cinematography, as he finds new shots so that the film’s shots don’t become repetitive and boring.
All of the criticism about how it’s condoning the sort of behavior exhibited by the protagonists is absurd. The only worry is uneducated and/or unintelligent people who see the film thinking getting the wrong idea about investment. The argument that more about the victims should have been shown is equally ridiculous. This film is timely because the recession has made victims of millions of people, so many have experienced, be it first- or second-hand, the potential devastation of these terrible practices. No, the film is about exactly what it should have been about: the outrageous extravagance, selfishness, and power of the stockbrokers, nothing more than that and nothing less.
This is a brilliant satire and a monumentally entertaining affair that succeeds extraordinarily well.