Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street
By Matthew Huntley
January 6, 2014

*Overenthusiastic laughter!*

Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street could be the last film needed to secure a new genre of movies simply called “wall street.” Others in the category would include, of course, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, which started it all, Boiler Room, Margin Call, and the documentaries Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Inside Job. Basically, the genre would be comprised of movies that depict the rise and fall of men whose very livelihood depends on finding new ways of making (more) money and maintaining power, particularly on Wall Street.

The other movies I mentioned, which all came out long before Scorsese’s, suggest Wolf isn’t the most novel in what it sets out to do, and compared to its brethren, as well as other Scorsese epics like Goodfellas and Casino, it very much adheres to a formula. But Scorsese, being a master of style, doesn’t let this prevent him from still making a dynamic, fierce and often visually splendid cautionary tale. In fact, Wolf practically admits it’s more about style than depth (something the main character more or less tells us point blank), and we enjoy it as such, both as a drama and comedy. Still, even as an exercise in style, it could have been shorter.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in a scarily convincing performance, plays Jordan Belfort, to whom the “wolf” in the title refers. Belfort acquires his moniker after Forbes Magazine calls him a “twisted Robin Hood” because his brokerage firm seems to steal from the rich and give to itself. But, as Belfort’s wife says, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and she’s right - the next day, every hotshot wannabe on Wall Street rushes to Belfort’s office door begging for a job.

Forbes was right, too. Indeed Belfort did earn his fortune by convincing rich people to buy shares in fruitless penny stocks, which yield a 50% commission to brokers, even though the stocks themselves don’t earn all that much, if anything (Belfort initially referred to the practice as “selling garbage to garbage men”). He starts off earning tens of thousands of dollars a month and then upgrades to millions per hour in some instances.

Before long, Belfort has more money than he can count and begins feeding a lifestyle that includes experimenting with any and all kinds of drugs, giving grandiose speeches to his hundreds of faithful followers, philandering with different types of prostitutes (yes, he tells us there are different types), incessant drinking, minimal sleep and then waking up and doing it all over again. And he’s not coy or ashamed about any of it. He fell in love with Wall Street’s high the day he started and it quickly became an addiction.

Like most men in these stories, as far back as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, Belfort came from humble beginnings. At the ripe age of 22, the Queens native got off the bus, kissed his wife (Cristin Milioti) good-bye and went to work as a stockbroker eager to make a decent, honest living. But his life changed the moment he met Mark Hana (Matthew McConaughey), who passed down his philosophies for drugging, boozing, masturbating and debauchery onto Belfort, who was in complete awe.

A couple years later, following Black Monday of 1987 and Belfort’s own bouts with financial adversity, he has his own firm on Wall Street called Stratton Oakmont and is living in a New York City penthouse. He takes with him his closest friends and colleagues, including Donnie (Jonah Hill), his neighbor who envies Belfort for his yellow Porsche and tells him he’ll work for him right there and then if he can prove he made $70,000 in one month; Brad (Jon Bernthal), a bodybuilder with vulgar connections; and Nicky, a.k.a. Rugrat (P.J. Byrne), who’s smart and practical, but a bit of a weasel with a bad hairpiece.

All of this is just the beginning of Belfort’s undulating journey through the world of corporate malfeasance, womanizing, substance abuse and greed. Along for the ride is his mistress and eventual second wife, the beautiful and exotic Naomi (Margot Robbie), who proves she can be just as strong-willed and uncompromising as Belfort. Together, they dive headlong into extreme decadence and lavish spending, from yachts and helicopters to $38,000 meals and wild parties in Vegas.

But, as Belfort’s dad (Rob Reiner) says, “eventually the chickens come home to roost,” and Belfort fails to ask himself the all-important question: when is enough enough? (Charles Ferguson posed the same question to the men responsible for the 2008 financial crisis in Inside Job, and they too didn’t have an answer.) And so the story goes, Belfort’s reign eventually comes to an end courtesy of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who admits Belfort’s case was just sort of “dropped onto him.”

Narrative-wise, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t offer many surprises or fresh insight into the world of aggressive moneymaking and ceaseless self-indulgence. And Scorsese, like Belfort, seems to be under the impression that more automatically means better, as he accents the characters’ moral degeneration too much (how many times do we need to see them snort cocaine?) and pushes the familiar themes harder than necessary. It’s like he left the deleted scenes in the theatrical release, and there are several instances where we imagine editor Thelma Schoonmaker wanted to cut but was urged to keep going. This is a three-hour saga that could have been tighter and more effective at two and half.

Still, the movie is never boring, and there are many moments that stand out as truly original and memorable. One includes a funny sequence in which Belfort and Donnie take a handful of old Quaaludes (a hypnotic drug) and wait for them to kick in. When they finally do, the results are near fatal, but what happens up to that point is uproarious. Another is a shot of the drugs themselves. I’m not sure if it was done with special effects or just a really long lens, but director of photography Rodrigo Prieto gives us an extreme close-up of the pills and the level of detail is fascinating, especially because of what the drug represents.

Inspired moments like these are sprinkled throughout The Wolf of Wall Street, which make its extended runtime easier to bear. Overall, I would have preferred the movie delve into the personalities of the characters instead of just constantly showcasing their outrageous behavior, but the film has a pulsating energy and maintains a hold on us, even though we know where it’s going. We leave the theater satisfied but also thinking there’s more to the real Jordan Belfort, whose memoir served as the basis for Terence Winter’s screenplay. Wolf breaks down his lifestyle, I think another movie, perhaps a documentary, could be made that breaks down his psychology. Wolf of Wall Street makes us more than curious about it.