By Melissa Agar
The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount, 2013) – Director: Martin Scorsese. Writers: Terence Winter (s/p), Jordan Belfort (book). Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, & Rob Reiner. Color, 180 minutes.
Martin Scorcese has made a career forging partnerships with actors who bring his work to life in ways no other actors could. For the first couple decades of his career, that partner was Robert DeNiro. It was a partnership that benefited both beyond measure – both did some of the finest work of their careers together. In the past decade or so, Scorcese has turned to Leonardo DiCaprio to play the parts that DeNiro likely would have played once upon a time when he was young and not mired in playing caricatures of himself. Their five-film collaborations include one that brought Scorcese his first directing Oscar and have brought out the very best of DiCaprio, allowing him to shake off the heartthrob label that Titanic could have saddled him with for the rest of his career. With The Wolf of Wall Street, their fifth film together, DiCaprio lights the screen on fire and once again proves that, for a superstar, he is still vastly underrated.
Based on a true story, The Wolf of Wall Street finds DiCaprio playing Jordan Belfort, a slick wheeler-dealer who yearns to live the life of the rich and famous. Like many young men of the late 80’s/early 90’s, Jordan sees that his quickest path to fortune takes him right down Wall Street. After his first attempt at becoming a stock broker collapses in the 1987 market crash, Jordan ends up working for a strip mall investment company that specializes in selling penny stocks. Jordan is a gifted salesman and soon finds he’s pulling in tens of thousands of dollars a month, prompting him to go into business for himself, pulling a bunch of neighborhood lugs with him, including his neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Hill). The deals that Jordan and his cronies are making are, he admits, completely illegal, but they are also incredibly lucrative. Before long, Jordan is making millions and blowing it on drugs, prostitutes, and yachts – and attracting the attention of equally hungry FBI agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Slowly but surely, Jordan’s world begins crumbling around him as the Feds get closer and closer to busting him and his own world becomes a drugged-out haze.
What Scorcese did for the mob in Goodfellas, he does for Wall Street with this film. He manages to illuminate the glamor of 90’s Wall Street while still showing how vile and horrific it was. Several times throughout the film, DiCaprio addresses the staff of Stratton Oakmont, the WASP-y name Jordan gives his company. These speech scenes are riveting, full of manic energy and persuasive power. (As coach of a high school speech team, these scenes gave me goosebumps.) He whips his staff into a frenzy that borders on primal, like wild animals chomping at the bit to be let loose on defenseless prey. It is moving but horrific at the same time. The depth of indulgence that Jordan and his cronies allow themselves to wallow in becomes equally nauseating as the film goes on and the utter depravity of this lifestyle leaves you feeling a lightheaded and sick as Jordan and Donnie must feel during one of their drug-fueled orgies.
In the hands of DiCaprio, though, Jordan becomes vilely likable. Jordan knows what he is doing is completely illegal, but he’s able to justify it all behind excuses and self-delusion. He sets himself up as a sort of Robin Hood, basking in his own generous glow. He’s a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps, escaping the sort of mundane middle class life his father (Reiner) settled for as a Queens accountant. To Jordan, this is both what he has earned and what he is owed.
Only rarely does DiCaprio let Jordan’s façade drop, but when it does, it is stunning to behold – whether it is during his powerful monologues delivered to the employees or a lovely scene with Joanna Lumley which runs a whole myriad of emotions and motivations before finally becoming hilariously creepy as Jordan puts a move on his wife’s favorite aunt. It’s going to be a tough year for actors come awards season, which is unfortunate because this is the kind of role that should win DiCaprio shelves of awards. The fact, too, that DiCaprio’s role is riddled with profanity and sexual depravity will likely make things more difficult for him with more conservative members of the Academy. It is unfortunate, though, because this is truly one of the finest roles of DiCaprio’s career.
For all of the deeper themes at play here about the corrupting power of greed, there is no denying that this is also a terrifically funny film, although many of the laughs are accompanied by uncomfortable squirming at the horror of Jordan’s life. Hill comes perilously close to stealing the film as Donnie, who seems completely lacking in conscience whether it’s over marrying his cousin, doing copious amounts of drugs, or selling out high school friend Steve Madden (yes, the shoe guy) as Stratton launches its first IPO and engages in massive stock fraud at the same time. With this and Moneyball, Hill is proving that he is capable of more than goofball comedies and could be on the road to a terrific career as a character actor a la Joe Pesci, the actor who likely would have played this role if the film had been made 20 or so years ago. Who would have thought Hill had it in him, but here we are again lauding him for his ability to not only hold his own against this caliber of talent but also steal the film out from under them.
At three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is a commitment. (In defense of that running time, I will say that the film is tightly paced in such a way that it doesn’t feel like three hours.) It is a commitment worth making, though, as it shines a light on the dark side of the American dream in a way that perhaps only Scorcese can. While the sex, language, and drug use may be a hurdle for some audience members, at its core, there is some important stuff going on here and some terrific performances that will stick with you.