Review of The Wolf of Wall Street
By Adam Tawfik
A majority of people worldwide were blindsided by the meltdown of the global economy in the summer of 2008. Like all other historical fiascos, it was the culmination of a series of unfortunate events. The roots of this disaster originated back to the 1980s when President Reagan implemented deregulation, which gave big business license to do whatever they hell they wanted. The financiers on Wall Street, who have always been ingenious at subverting legal loopholes for their own opportunistic means, had a field day with laissez-faire Reagonomics.
Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, The Wolf of Wall Street, uncomfortably closely thrusts the viewer into the twisted mind of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an entrepreneur who began his stock-market empire by selling worthless penny stocks to working class schumcks before infiltrating the pocketbooks of the wealthy and becoming one of the most notorious but most desired people to work for.
The film’s success is first and foremost attributed to screenwriter Terence Winter. Winter, the visionary behind the gritty HBO crime series The Sopranos, imbues Wolf with a visceral black humor and creates a cesspool populated with irredeemable but eminently fascinating diabolical antiheroes, whose crudeness and ruthlessness matches those of mobsters. At various points, I felt as though I knew what was going to ensue since the characters were predictably reckless, but Winter consistently raised the stakes of insanity and the outcomes led to something satisfyingly unexpected, which kept the film accelerating at a queasy pace. The voiceover is cleverly written as it leads us to unequivocally trust Belfort because of his brash, tell-all style, though by the second act, we begin to realize that he is a sneaky and highly unreliable narrator.
Wolf being classified as a comedy at awards shows has inspired much snarky dissent from the internet. Certainly, the surface plot has all the elements of a dark, depressing piece, but on-screen the action is expertly executed with kinetic comedic timing. There are several vignettes of unrelenting broad hilarity, with a deeply vitriolic subtext, that also with Winter’s savvy writing advance the plot.
The script’s only weakness is in the prologue scenes where Belfort learns the ropes from experienced Wall Street parasite Mark Hanna (well played by Matthew McConaughey); I didn’t buy Belfort’s naiveté, it felt too forced and obligatory to contrast his later ruthlessness. They’re the only pedestrian scenes in a highly outrageous story.
After making sprawling, but ultimately disappointingly conventional films for the past few years, Wolf finds Scorsese back to his raw, unique style of filmmaking. He demonstrates a deft visual touch of orchestrating debauchery both on small and epic scales with abandoned irreverence. The composition of excessive crowd scenes matches the glorious prodigality of 1920s silent film sagas. Scorsese could have easily trimmed thirty minutes by eliminating several of the slow-motion drug taking scenes, which felt gratuitous after a while.
Wolf will not really be an iconic Scorsese film, due to the missed opportunity in the mise-en-scene to capture the gaudy, audacious 80s style. Sandy Powell’s costumes (save for Jonah Hill’s multi-gumdrop colored shirt and mom-jeans in his first scene) and the makeup department’s efforts look more Mad Men. Bob Shaw’s sets and Chris Shriver’s art direction have a generic, overly formalistic look. This is disappointing as Scorsese’s films usually have excellent mise-en-scene, like Taxi Driver whose barren, apocalyptic New York City greatly increases the tension, or Raging Bull, whose dark black and white cinematography and grungy sets create the aura of claustrophobia.
The eclectic soundtrack consisting of an assortment of Motown, bebop, and old school rap is in tune with the frenetic pace and Wolf’s overall wonderful discombobulation. As a diehard jazz lover, I especially liked the use of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’ vocalese classic “Cloudburst” and pianist Ahmad Jamal’s “Reefer Madness” rendition of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.”
Leonardo DiCaprio has skillfully played several difficult antiheroes on-screen for nearly twenty years, yet there’s still a tendency to underestimate his talent because of his handsome appearance and relative youth. His work in Wolf should dispel any doubts. His combination of movie star and serious actor make him ideal for the megalomaniacal Belfort. Dicaprio flares the screen with manic energy, but behind the excessive exuberance, there’s a cool, calculated mind that’s equally forceful. At some points especially when he put on sunglasses in the boat scene, DiCaprio looks like and has the manic essence of Jack Nicholson.
Although Jonah Hill’s name appears below the main title, he is truly co-lead alongside DiCaprio. Hill stellarly portrays Donnie, Belfort’s best friend and partner-in-corruption, using his obese, average looks to make the gleefully soulless monster inside of his character more alarming. Many times when he’s sweaty and ungainly we think that he might cave in to the pressure, but he’s a very smooth operator. Hill has many of the most audacious one-liners all of which he delivers with relish.
There is a great supporting cast comprised of relative newcomers and veteran performers. Rob Reiner is hilarious as Belfort’s volatile and exasperated father, who tries to act as his son’s conscience in a morally dubious manner. Kyle Chandler turns in another great character performance as the ethical FBI agent determined to stop Wall Street corruption. Jean Dujardin is droll as an underhanded Swiss banker. P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, and Henry Zebrowski are perfectly slimy and crass as Belfort’s business cronies.
There are several female performers who shine in capsule-sized roles. Aya Cash as Belfort’s menacingly barking assistant and Stephanie Kurtzuba as a wired stockbroker add a crude and ferocious humor to their roles. Joanna Lumley gives a charming performance as the adventurous English aunt-in-law who participates in Belfort’s money laundering scheme. As another money launderer, Katarina Cas imbues her part with a hard-boiled femme fatale allure.
Following the trend of most Scorsese films, the leading female characters (Margot Robbie and Cristen Milloti), who do little other than cannily emulate the Queens accent, are the weakest in the cast. Millotti is overly syrupy as Belfort’s loving and naive first wife. The role of Naomi, Belford’s second wife, initially offers Robbie a chance to be deliciously bawdy and bitchy, but the character and her performance become too opaque in the film’s second half.
This year Wolf is the target film for the reactionary legion of political correctness, who claim that the film condones Belfort’s tactics, once again forgetting that representation does not necessarily equal endorsement. The filmmaker’s exuberant depiction of the excessive drugging and gambling could be construed as glorification of greed. Behind the façade is a cautionary tale of the ugly underbelly of capitalism. The conflict is ours; we despise them, yet we envy them. Ultimately, we empower them by our unwillingness to change the system as we see ourselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The final shot of a bunch of eager highly average-looking people of diverse ages, classes, and races attending Belfort’s seminar, is a horrifying image as it indicts all of us and how we want a part of the action, forsaking all our morals and good sense in the hopes of becoming rich. It is one of the best final visual shots since the famous kaleidoscopic mirror shot of an opportunistic, scheming fan going after an equally unscrupulous actress in All About Eve.