“Was this legal? Absolutely not!”
Excess has been a prominent cinematic theme in 2013. The Bling Ring, Blue Jasmine, The Great Gatsby, Pain & Gain, and Spring Breakers have all attacked excess and the various personalities it attracts and creates. With 2013 coming to a close, the year has one final exposé on the dangers of excess, only it takes the form of a three-hour long blitz coated in cocaine powder and financial corruption. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a ferocious whirlwind chronicling the sprawling career of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), adapted from Belfort’s own memoir by Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter. Wolf is an angry, almost savage picture, played as a full-blown comedy – the first all-out comedy for Scorsese in decades – featuring a huge supporting cast and a very chaotic narrative. Though it’s a great deal of fun and entertaining as all hell, Wolf struggles to keep its energy evenly distributed for 180 minutes, condensing various segments, rushing through punch lines, and rearranging Belfort’s already warped rags-to-riches-to-rags arc. Its intoxicating spirit provides the means for Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker to construct some A-plus sequences and set pieces, but the overall Wall Street monster only earns a B-grade at best, with the repercussions of a beat-the-clock trimming process more noticeable than one would hope.
Much like the memoir, the earlier percentage of The Wolf of Wall Street is constructed episodically, leaping back and forth through time to give Jordan Belfort an unusual development. At its most linear, we meet a young doe-eyed Belfort, thrown into the fray of Wall Street and treated to a triple-digit lunch atop the E.L. Rothschild stock holding firm by senior broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, stellar in his single scene). From there, following Black Monday, Belfort searches for a new stockbroking job, happening upon a backdoor, penny stocks firm that Belfort transforms into Stratton Oakmont, the most debaucherous, unwieldy, and illegally driven stockbroking firm to ever exist. As Belfort’s fortune expands and his community of ‘Strattonites’ blossoms like a campus fraternity, his drug addiction takes hold and his life spirals toward a messy debacle with the FBI (led by the active Kyle Chandler in a straight-faced performance).
As a screen adaptation, it’s hard to tell if Scorsese and Winter are looking to use Belfort’s memoir as a means to represent the more recent financial downturn, metonymizing Belfort as a stand-in for the many selfish Wall Street-ers who stole from innocent stock holders and flushed them oversold crap in order to reap the benefits like they were pink sheeted penny stocks. While Belfort was hardly a saint, and knowingly partook in this snarling activity, Wolf’s portrait of Belfort is considerably darker than his own interpretation of himself. He doesn’t shy away from his own horrors, fully disclosing his nauseating life play-by-play along with reflective commentary, but the subjectivity allows for a layer of empathy from the readers – he does make a point of explaining his intention behind the memoir, which is to describe to his children the monster that their father used to be – and the film’s characterization is totally objective. Even with DiCaprio breaking the fourth wall, a la Goodfellas, his monologues feel like their teleprompted, but DiCaprio recites them pleasantly, extracting a whole new conceptualization of the stockbroker-formerly-known-as Jordan Belfort.
Interestingly enough, it is DiCaprio that makes a bulk of the film work with his deliciously liberating performance. Leo has had a long and fruitful career and we, as viewers, have watched him mature from prodigy to heartthrob to A-list superstar, but the masses seem to take him for granted regardless of the role he’s playing. He’s not an actor who chooses poor characters or bad films, he’s very calculated, and since cultivating a relationship with Martin Scorsese on The Aviator and The Departed (still his finest performances), he’s continued to surprise and impress. Playing the titular ‘Wolf’ is no different, showcasing DiCaprio at his most physically comedic, stretching an acting appendage we’ve truthfully never seen from him before. Due to its daring nature, Jordan Belfort is surely one of DiCaprio’s most impressive performances, staining himself with decadence and wearing a dilated flame of madness all over his manic face and through his jet-black hair. Wonderfully cast against type, Leo gleefully lets loose a very uncharacteristic side of himself, rarely seen by any screen actor of equal star magnitude. It’s the perfect performance to accompany last winter’s Calvin Candie and to invert this past summer’s Jay Gatsby.
In fact, of the entire cast, Jonah Hill is the most appropriately cast actor. As Belfort’s right hand man, Donnie Azoff, Hill is a barbarous loose canon. Sporting wire-rimmed glasses and blinding white chompers, Hill totally disappears into his character, turning in potentially the best overall performance of his career. Not to discourage his surprisingly great work in Moneyball, Hill goes above and beyond to deliver next-level, award worthy work igniting every scene with an infectious sense of uncertainty and absolute lunacy. He shares just about all of his screen time with DiCaprio, but he runs away with most of it, namely one unfortunately memorable segment where he vigorously masturbates at a house party at the sight of Jordan’s stunning second wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), and another when he goes to deliver a suitcase of money to one of Jordan’s rat-holes (Jon Bernthal). Of the Apatow comedy crowd, Hill has unquestionably shown the most motivation in expanding his horizons, but under the direction of Martin Scorsese, he’s proven that he can still be at his most exciting within his preferred genre.
The A-level ensemble is of Wolf’s strengths – not counting out Jean Dujardin and his crocodile smile or Rob Reiner’s side-splitting turn as Jordan’s short tempered father – and Scorsese controls their respective evils well. But it’s the erratic energy, the kind of nonstop sensation that the film seems to require, that Scorsese can’t juggle just right. Again, because of the episodic narrative structure, Wolf acts as a series of events as opposed to a sequence. Of course, like Belfort admits in the novel, he’s recounting his life as a satire but looking to maintain a strong level of authenticity to each and every event. In the film, only a handful of the tableaus play out with this desired wind-up energy. The film’s finest sequence is an extended super-high that Jordan and Donnie get off of age-old Quaaludes; it should go on record as one of the funniest and most engrossing drug-use sequences of late. However, there are other bitingly funny and jaw-droppingly setups that don’t deliver the same frenzied payoff. For instance, one of the more grappling scenes in the book involves a furious Naomi teasing Jordan sexually in front of their daughter. It’s written like a prolonged sports highlight, beautifully pitching the punch line that Belfort then knocks out of the park. In the film, it’s over before many people realized what’s being established. It will garner a chuckle, but it’s hardly the blip of insanity that it was in text.
Also, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is a real disappointment. The original cut of The Wolf of Wall Street was four full hours and the duo cut out a full sixty minutes, which caused the film’s release to be pushed back from mid-November to Christmas. Those missing sixty minutes don’t feel necessary – trust me, you will feel these three hours trot by – but they definitely are the cause of the uneven energy. You can tell which scenes were the ones that Scorsese and Schoonmaker stuck to without making a single sacrifice, while others were given an edge feathering in an effort to make it all run quicker. The final product contains some jagged edges that surely take part in the film’s hollowness. There’s just a ‘something’ missing when all is said and done that is noticeable at the start and remains astray for the entire duration. Even with so much goodness, and some greatness, spread out over the entire feature, Wolf still comes up a little empty come the credits.
Maybe I set myself up for disappointment by starting to read Belfort’s memoir, or maybe I just expected something deeper from a veteran like Scorsese. Whatever it is, Wolf does sting with slight disappointment, earning recognition as one of the year’s better comedies but definitely not one of its best films. It’s a riot, and one that I will probably revisit and maybe reassess at a later date, but it’s not worthy of the Goodfellas comparisons it’s been earning. Small amenities, like DiCaprio’s narration and talking directly to the audience, some of the lingering camera movements, and the undeniable Lorraine Bracco-like hairdo of Jordan’s first wife, Teresa, are Goodfellas-esque, but even Scorsese’s overall direction – typically very immersive and meticulous – is just as loose and sprawling as the anti-narrative. But, people will adore its audacity, it’s a balls-to-the-walls molestation of fun with a treacherous desire to jolt like a line of blow, feverishly attempting a mountain of material over an extensive runtime. It’s a lunatic opera, a neo-Citizen Kane for ‘frat boy’ culture. Scorsese does implant a pulse, but it’s a dull heartbeat caked in crushed up Quaaludes and packaged under stacks of illegally obtained greenbacks that operates in numerous fits and starts.
For a film about excess, that madly revels in how truly unglorified it is, The Wolf of Wall Street still leaves some things to be desired.
Review by Mike Murphy