The Wolf of Wall Street

by Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade

EXPECTATIONS: It's somehow comforting to know that, even in 2013, Martin Scorsese can still make a film that pisses off old-school Academy members and launches a thousand parody titles in the process. (Come on, don't tell me you wouldn't see The Werewolf of Wall Street.) I hope the machine-gun barrage of DiCaprio, debauchery and dollar bills we see in the trailers never lets up for the film's entire three hours. This could be the perfect capper to 2013's Cinema of Greed.

REALITY: "A funny thing happened on the way to Wall Street. We snorted some coke, then we took a few too many quaaludes. Then, we spent a bunch of money throwing little people at a velcro dartboard. And then somewhere along the way, the FBI came along and spoiled everyone's good time. After that, we snorted some more coke for good measure, because why not?"

Somewhere in the middle of all this madness, Martin Scorsese hid a brilliant motion picture about the culture of corporate greed and the fact that nobody ever really learns their lesson. It just happens to be buried underneath a biopic that constantly hammers the same note, a dozen narrative dead-ends, and tone that can't decide whether it wants to be darkly satirical or flat-out comedy. Be careful what you wish for, I guess...

The romance of 2013.

The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, tells the story of how Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of personally-trained stock brokers became the talk of the business world. Belfort starts small, realizing that there's money to be made in selling penny stocks to morons. With his partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort watches his operation grow from ten guys hawking stocks in a garage to a multi-million dollar business. Along the way Belfort divorces his wife for a young designer named Naomi (Margot Robbie) and brings a Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin) into the fold. As Belfort and his crew enjoy the spoils of incredible success, FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) studies the firm's practices, waiting for the perfect chance to take the operation down.

Early on, none of Belfort's business practices seem particularly illegal. He's endlessly aggressive, sure, but the film never lets us close enough to see what he's doing until he's blatantly hiding money in Switzerland. Occasionally, he'll begin explaining to us his company's process, only to interrupt himself by saying, "But who gives a shit? We're rich!" Even he doesn't really know what he's doing, something that his first boss explains at the start of the film. "The number one rule of Wall Street," Matthew McConaughey tells him, "is that nobody knows..."

That lack of situational awareness bleeds into the film itself. The Wolf of Wall Street is much more concerned with establishing a tone and staying in the moment than it is about examining the rise and fall of this man's life. This may be why many of the film's scenes are interminably long, and occasionally serve no purpose. In fact, that even rings true of the best scene in the film, in which Belfort drags himself home while wasted on quaaludes to stop Donnie from using a phone tapped by the FBI. Taken on its own, it's one of the funniest things Scorsese and DiCaprio have ever filmed. It's a long way to go for a bit of physical comedy, though, and it has very little bearing on anything that comes before or after it.

If Gatsby could see you now...You could cut scenes like that, and the story would not suffer for it. The irreverent flavor would be lost, but the film's trajectory would remain the same, largely because there isn't much of one to begin with. Once Belfort's debauchery leads him to divorce, his path is more or less set in stone. The endless stream of girls, drugs and Benjamins never ends. Much like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Scorsese paints this character as a person who loves his life too much to give any of it up. He knows good and well the monster he's become, and he simply can't leave it. For Jordan Belfort, extravagance is like the cocaine he snorts. Once he builds up a tolerance to his obscene wealth, the only means of reaching that same high is by acquiring more.

And yet, DiCaprio is less an anchor for the film and more of an albatross around its neck. The film opens with his performance cranked to eleven, and he refuses to let up for three solid hours. When he's not snorting coke out of asscracks, he's practically fellating the microphones he uses to fire up his employees. As a result, the rest of the cast find themselves struggling to match his raw charisma. Among them, Jonah Hill fares the best. He plays Donnie as the kind of straight-laced, yuppie creepazoid that took Oliver Stone's Wall Street at face value (then again, we're led to believe that most of them did). It's a wonderfully weird performance, and a welcome counterpart to DiCaprio's unwavering bravado.

The long and short of it is that The Wolf of Wall Street is a great film hamstrung by its own excess. With a tighter focus, this would easily be Scorsese's best since Goodfellas. I don't believe for a second that it glorifies any of the greed on display here, but it sometimes gets so caught up in the rush of visual excess that the line starts to blur. There's an undeniable energy to it that demands to be seen, but its sluggish three-hour running time means that a living room sofa, a small bowl of popcorn and maybe one soda might be the more sensible setting.

Comedy7/10
Debauchery5/10
Narrative Focus4/10
DiCaprio and HillBros 4 Lyfe (8/10)
Pure, Unadulterated Scorsese9/10
Overall34/50

MINORITY REPORT: In this film, the first time we meet Jonah Hill's character, he is wearing a hideous button down-shirt that appears to be some sort of patchwork pattern made of pastel squares. I am making special note of this only because I have distinct childhood memories of my father owning, and frequently wearing, the exact same shirt. Congratulations, Dad. Your fashion sense in the late-80s was SO BAD that a professional movie costume designer decided that it epitomized the very idea of "Look at this friggin' schmuck." Proud day in the Schneider household. - Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider

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