Review Date: 01/23/2014
Rating: 5/5 Peanuts.
In a Nutshell:
The true tragedy of Martin Scorsese’s superb ode to Wall Street extravagance is not that it glorifies the lifestyle, but that the unabashed peek behind the curtain serves more to entertain than to admonish or alarm.
All throughout viewing The Wolf of Wall Street I had one recurring thought: “Am I watching the sequel to Goodfellas?” And indeed I am nearly convinced that Wolf was at the very least the spiritual successor of that much earlier Scorsese film. Both films deal with the rise and fall of a group of brazen criminals who lead lives consumed by power, greed and pleasure seeking so far beyond what everyday people experience that we can only stare in awe at the spectacle. And yet, the tragedy of both films is that the characters in the center of the films are so thoroughly relatable that almost anyone can immediately place themselves in the role of the protagonist. And make no mistake, empathizing with the protagonists is so easy it happens reflexively, and the lives they lead, up to and perhaps even including their fall from grace is so seductive that I caught myself marveling a few times that I wanted that. I didn't want to be Jordan Belfort any more than I wanted to be Henry Hill, but I wanted what they had.
Why then are these two films so similar? I think it’s because they both portray the pursuit of the American Dream. Not the Beltway narrative of hard work in a middle class job for 2.4 kids and a white picket fence, but the actual, everyday manifestation of the American Dream where greed is good and cash is king. It’s a New York New York, “if I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere” kind of mentality. It’s about clawing your way to the top in a mad game of king of the mountain, and the great irony of America is that all of us deep down want to be king.
In the opening narrative, and again both Wolf and Goodfellas feature an unabashed narrator throughout, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort notes that “at the tender age of 22 I went to the only place that befit my high-minded ambitions.” This place, of course, is Wall Street, and the line is eerily similar to Liotta’s “As far back as I could remember I always wanted to be a gangster” monologue. DiCaprio then proceeds to explain in vivid detail the rise and fall of an American avatar. Indeed, if you wanted to understand everything that occurs in the three hour spectacle about to unfold, you only need to watch the scene in which a true to form Matthew McConaughey takes the 22 year old soon to be Wolf under his wing and explains to him how Wall Street really works.
What follows is a gorgeously shot, exquisitely written remarkably funny tale of sex, drugs and money. And believe the hype – the film doesn't flinch once in depicting the debauchery of the lives these people lived. Scorsese is in fine form throughout, and the film doesn't drag at all throughout any of its three hour run time. I was so captivated by the machinations on screen that I barely noticed the passage of time.
The largest source of criticism of the film appears to be its portrayal of the characters themselves, something I find so incomprehensible I thought I had taken one of DiCaprio’s Quaaludes. And yet, in review after review I have read that people feel Scorsese was not critical enough of Belfort’s actions such as defrauding investors, conducting insider trading, and laundering money. Considering DiCaprio states directly to the audience on multiple occasions that what they were doing was illegal, not to mention the scene in which he decides to target the wealthiest one percent of investors (those who can afford to be swindled) after a subtle guilt-tripping from his first wife, I think the filmmakers did a fine job of highlighting the wrongs of 90’s financial excess. Indeed, it is probably that the characters themselves were so unapologetic that this source of criticism arises at all, but that is exactly why they behaved as they did in the first place. It would have been out of character to show contrition as that very emotion would have prevented such acts in the first place.
On a personal note, I have to say that the final scene of the film is perhaps the most beautiful self-summation I have seen in a film in a long time. Belfort stands at a sales seminar, fresh from his stint in prison, asking New Zealanders to sell him his own pen. As the Kiwi’s fail to grasp, yet we the audience know from an earlier scene, it’s not about the pen, it’s about creating a desire in people, creating a demand to which you conveniently control the supply. It’s simple economics, and it is why The Wolf of Wall Street is the embodiment of American Dream. Deep down, we all want to be Jordan Belfort because deep down we all want to be rich and powerful like he was. In this case Scorsese didn't create the itch, but he certainly busted out the industrial strength back scratcher.