As the movies have often taught us, greed promotes more greed and will eventually be one’s downfall. Here comes The Wolf of Wall Street, which more or less shares that same philosophy but does it with more drugs, nudity, and profanity than most. This is a Martin Scorsese movie, and while it often feels like one, there are points when you think it was being made by someone else. When was the last time Scorsese shot the naked human body as often as it is seen here? Or injected his film with enough laughs that it could easily be listed as a “comedy” without anyone accusing it of being mislabeled?
The Wolf of Wall Street details years in the life of a man named Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is a real person. We get to watch his life from the age of 22 to some point after that; I don’t think the year at which we end is distinctly mentioned, although I’d wager he’s in his mid 30s. Belfort begins as an eager up-and-coming stock broker who winds up starting his own company, making millions, and then wanting more — eventually turning to illegal methods to obtain even greater wealth.
Meanwhile, while all of this is going on, an FBI Agent (Kyle Chandler) is trying to find him out and take him down. While this only becomes a primary plot point in the film’s final third — I suppose given its near three-hour running time that’s still a significant portion — it does become important. The rest of the film, mostly earlier on, deals with Belfort’s company, his family life, and his excessive partying.
I’m not hyperbolizing his lifestyle, either. As he tells us himself — either in voice-over narration or a fourth-wall-breaking monologue; both are used here to accomplish the same goal — he does enough drugs to sedate the entirety of the state. Uppers, downers — if they’re illegal, he’s probably taking them. The film doesn’t condemn their use but it does put them to good effect, especially in one absolutely hilarious scene involving extremely old and powerful versions of Quaaludes. This makes for the funniest scene in a movie full of them.
When was the last time that Martin Scorsese made a film that could rightfully be called a comedy? Many of his films have funny moments but not as many and not as frequent as The Wolf of Wall Street. Much of the comedy is dark, but that comes with the subject matter. The American Dream isn’t often depicted as a happy thing, even when it all goes right for the protagonist. This is a picture that explores the underside of this business, although without a whole lot of judgment.
The characters are all good, bad, or too complicated to sum up in one word all one their own. The way they break the law, do copious amounts of drugs, and so on wind up just being parts of their personalities. Even with Belfort constantly addressing the audience directly, this is a more objective retelling of his story than you might think. It’s not here to make you feel one way or another about the man; it’s going to tell you a story that contains things you may or not have previously seen, and then it’s going to leave you to think on what you just saw.
This more objective method of storytelling poses a bit of a problem, though. Belfort is smart, smug, and funny. He is not, however, a terribly compelling individual, especially when we have to watch him for three hours. We watch him go through this life and we wonder why. Apart from a speech early on given to him by a cameoing Matthew McConaughey, the film provides little reason other than the fact that money, power, and greed just cause someone to want more money and power.
You’ll want more, I guess. The immorality of the characters and scenario is made clear in scene after scene — what you can stand as an audience member will also be tested — but we’re never really told why. It’s funny, it’s told in an energetic way, and you’re not likely to be bored (maybe repulsed, as is the intention), but if you’re looking for something that delves deeper into the characters than a simple “because it tells a good story,” then you’ll want to look elsewhere. Maybe to one of Martin Scorsese’s earlier offerings. Last I checked, you could find copies of Goodfellas lying around in retail stores.
To skip out on The Wolf of Wall Street would be to miss what is probably the finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career and one of the best ones of the year. He is tremendous in this role, throwing in everything that he has. He’s not afraid to embarrass himself, show real passion and grit, and also display his natural charm. It’s all at play here. It’s clear that he’s taking roles designed to give him a shot at an Academy Award, and this finally might be his time.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an incredibly funny movie that delves into the glutton-based culture that is the world of stock brokers. Led by a tremendous performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and crafted in an unflinching and stylistic method, this is a movie that tells a solid story more objectively than you might think. This leads to it having an issue where we question exactly what, apart from greed, drives the characters, but I’ll happily take this movie as a more surface-level entertainment piece than most films any day of the week.