The Wolf of Wall Street

(USA - 2013)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin
Genre: Biography/Comedy/Crime/Drama
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Terence Winter from Jordan Belfort's novel
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Composer: -

“I was selling garbage to garbage men, and making cash hand over fist. So I was selling them shit, the way I looked at it, their money was better off in my pocket. I knew how to spend it better!” - Jordan Belfort

I wasn't that excited when The Wolf of Wall Street was announced as the next Martin Scorsese project because we were once again stuck with Leonardo DiCaprio after finally getting a nice break with Hugo, the first feature where Scorsese actually explored new territory since 1997's Kundun. Part of the greatness of Scorsese's films was they starred three of the greatest actors of all-time - Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, & Daniel Day Lewis - and he could actually use someone else if the film was more suited for them, for instance Scorsese's best comedy After Hours starred the hardly legendary but perfectly suited for the role Griffin Dunne. It's been very hard to accept this shift to an actor of such limited range and marginal depth as Leo having to get endless screen time in every Scorsese film, and even though it's likely more that Scorsese feels he needs DiCaprio to get the film financed, by the time he's done making all the concessions to make a movie with the kind of budget he's used to it winds up being something impersonal that lacks the verve, energy, and his sense of humor that characterized his great films of the 1970's-90's.

It's almost immediately apparent that this isn't old Scorsese, but rather the Scorsese of old. Everything is firing on all cylinders in The Wolf of Wall Street, and that feeling doesn't dissipate in 3 hours, which flies by feeling more like 30 minutes. Scorsese was so impressed by the job Terence Winter did of turning Nelson Johnson's non-fiction novel “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City” into the excellent TV Series Boardwalk Empire that Scorsese asked him to adapt his next feature from Jordan Belfort’s memoir. Winter came back with something that would return Scorsese to the territory of his greatest film Goodfellas, a wild, fast-paced roller coaster ride of the rise and fall of a charming, seductive, and energetic stockbroker who entrances everyone, especially the audience, despite and sometimes even because he's doing mostly despicable things.

Wolf goes far more in the direction of black comedy than violence, and sees DiCaprio finally cast in the role he can actually play well as the brash, rebellious King Leo against the world he's going to screw over so he can be above everyone else where he belongs. Though anything but a great range stretching performance, it allows Leo to mainly rely on his charisma, which he does have, and gives him ample opportunity to display it memorably, particularly as a bent Tony Robbins style motivational speaker exciting his thieving broker merry men to deal with their problems by becoming rich(er). Self belief, fearlessness, and inhibition are the keys to the success of DiCaprio's performance and Jordan's style of ballsy conning. Ultimately, it's another rich asshole role for Leo, but it doesn't fall flat like The Aviator, partially because the voice over narration gives Leo so much great deeply condescending material to work with and partially because the character isn't treated with the lofty air of mythology that's almost always added to the biographies of supposed legendary figures. Whereas Howard Hughes tendencies are so often apologized for in as a mix of eccentricity and illness in The Aviator, Wolf of Wall Street never shies away from lampooning everyone, including Jordan himself, whose ineptitude includes the classic line “I fucked her brains out... for eleven seconds” and a whole drugged out journey home immediately repeated in the true, far more pathetic and destructive version. Leo's delivery of the narration is actually so similar to Ray Liotta's in Goodfellas that my father swore Liotta was actually doing the narration, and we had to check the cast.

It's certainly not just the better casting and arguable improvement of DiCaprio that makes Wolf of Wall Street the first great Scorsese film of the 21st century, but that it feels like Scorsese has the interest and the resources to fully develop all aspects of the film the way he used to. I know Gangs of New York was a dream project that he was trying to get made for years, but even that didn't feel like a Scorsese film through and through, it got bogged down in both plot and exposition, and simply too much of the material with the lesser stars DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz felt forced. Wolf of Wall Street may be repetitive in the sex, drugs, and money type of scenes it depicts, but it's never stagnant, it's always racing forward and finding new ways to show and tell everything on screen to the fullest extent of possibility.

There are so many different ways in which we experience the individual scenes through the use of tracking shots, cranes, zooms, dollies, freeze frames, even slow motion to depict the initial sleepy aspect brought on by Quaalude, and none of them ever feel false or even present simply as a part of an overall stylistic decision because the scenes are handled individually. Whatever movement or stillness is logical and/or necessary is applied to each individual scene, but the film never feels anything but cohesive. Despite it's length, Wolf of Wall Street ever seems to show us any more than it needs to. Rodrigo Prieto's camera always moves from a specific spot to the shot/scenes logical conclusion, propelling the action and partially due to the use of voice-over narration, even expressing the content.

The narration allows for so much extra detail - both visually and verbally - granting the filmmaker more room to both visually expound and surprise. At the same time, the narration speeds the pace of the movie, removing all the awkward introductions and facts tossed into the dialogue for the sake of audience comprehension, replacing the usual contrived padding with Jordan commenting on what transpired in his wise-ass manner. Characters who would otherwise be a forgettable portion of the landscape are memorable because of a single joke. While there may never be another of Goodfellas Jimmy Two Times, “I”m gonna get the paper, get the paper,” there's a new classic introduction “Chester Ming, the depraved Chinaman, thought jiu jitsu was in Israel.” It's so nice to see the sort of eccentric characterization that elevates the smaller players from functional cogs in the plot to returning to Scorsese's work, for instance Jordan's father Max Belfort (Rob Reiner) going nuts because someone “Has the goddamn gall to call this house on a Tuesday night” when The Equalizer is on.

Jordan is largely a memorable character because he's such a bullshit artist. We know there's a lot of embellishment, half truths, twisting, and coloring, but it's almost funnier the more obvious that is, for instance Jordan's interview where he proves his ability to sell penny stocks by twisting the company of a couple brothers in the middle of nowhere who make radar detectors or microwaves out of their garage with their mom as the de facto receptionist (they presumably can't even afford a business line) into a stock with “huge upside potential with very little downside...the best thing I've seen in the last six months...a cutting edge, high tech firm out of the Midwest awaiting imminent patent approval on the next generation of radar detectors that have both huge military and civilian applications...I never ask my clients to judge me on my winners, I ask them to judge me on my losers because I have so few, and in the case of Aerotyne, based on every technical factor out there, John, we are looking at a grand slam home run” because there's a kind of creative genius in making up on the spot and putting over such outlandish falsehoods.

Wolf of Wall Street is probably the second best edited film of 2013 behind Shane Carruth's remarkable Upstream Color, which is a lot more of a compressed work where each shot not only builds the path to the next, but also advances the story with little to no help from exposition or dialogue. Upstream Color actually approaches the immortal benchmark level set by Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, but Thelma Schoonmaker is still the best editor in Hollywood, and Wolf is pretty remarkable in its own right. In both films, there's always movement, but the start and stop points of the camera seem so perfectly planned the scenes flow together seamlessly, each shot adding new information to the previous until enough has been said without saying anything to advance. Perhaps the best tribute to the quality of the editing is that the first cut (soon to be released on DVD) was an hour longer, and she managed to excise an hour without removing whole scenes or leaving the viewer with the slightest clue that anything was missing from the scenes as they remained.

Though far from my favorite selection of songs, the manner in which Scorsese uses the pop tunes is exceptional. They are brought in loud for a few seconds while no one is talking for a line or two that more than even setting the tone for the scene, seems to instead comment on the action or general state of affairs, and then as soon as the dialogue or narration starts they fade into the background where they are, at least, no more obtrusive than the rest of the score. Some of the better examples of the songs contributing something include the line “And I wonder, if everything will ever feel this good forever” from Everlong by Foo Fighters being used at the start of Jordan & Naomi's honeymoon, while Insane in the Brain by Cypress Hill introduces one of the drug laden parties. I totally didn't get the use of Mrs. Robinson for an FBI raid though.

While American Hustle fails at being a tepid, inoffensive plot oriented Scorsese, Wolf of Wall Street works because it has a director who knows what he's doing working in his own style to create a completely unapologetic non plot oriented film that depicting an insane lifestyle by immersing you in at as deeply as possible. It's a life of scamming your clients to get any commission you can get and then immediately blowing the money on sex, drugs, and anything that would impress Robin Leach. Money is always the answer because it's the lifestyle enabler. It's the power to lord over everyone. They all know they are aren't good guys, that they are totally amoral, but they live this way for one reason, because they can. They live in a society where all the respect and rewards go to those that are successful, and no real consideration is taken to the path of destruction that lies in their wake.

Most of the fun of the brokers job is what they, the telephone terrorists, can put over on the saps that are paying them for their supposed help. The whole job is a joke – on the clients – and a party that makes it all unreal. In order to not think about the damage they are doing, they dehumanize everyone to the point they are all just ATM machines or toys. One plan for entertainment involves hiring midgets they can toss and bowl, and Jordan makes sure there's a tranquilizer gun on hand in case there's any problem. They seem to momentarily contemplate the treatment of these poor midgets, but it's all a joke to them, hence everyone breaks into a twisted homage of Tod Browning's classic Freaks we treat them like “one of us, gooble gobble, one of us.”



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