Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street
Director: Martin Scorsese
Reviewed: 26 April 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2
An aerial shot from a camera that must be mounted on a helicopter swoops over the ocean about ninety minutes into the film flying towards a glorious yacht with about one hundred people dancing and swaying in unison like a choreographed musical number. The camera zooms in closer, and we see Leonardo DiCaprio as our protagonist, leading this improbable circus parade of mayhem over the strains of "Insane in the Membrane." It is one of several breathtaking moments that occurs when Martin Scorsese returns to form, tying back the world of Goodfellas, Casino, and even The Departed as he chronicles the rise and fall of stock broker Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, an ambitious and dazzling film that features top acting, incredible editing, and a relevance to modern day headlines. Jordan at one point helpfully tells us that what occurs at his firm is nothing comparatively. I reference Goodfellas and Casino because Scorsese focuses on the underbelly of the American Dream by examining outsiders who want in, people willing to gain money and power through the most outrageous of ways: the Lufthansa heist; building a golden city out of the desert; and manipulating stock prices to gain huge dividends. Those films along with Wolf feature the rise and fall of an American empire, a family of criminals devoted to each other until . . . well . . . things fall apart.
However, The Departed, a more recent Scorsese film, came to mind even more strongly as I watched this film. Jack Nicholson's famous monologue from the opening of the film comes to mind: "They told us we could be cops or we could be criminals. But when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?" And besides being a post-9-11 treatise on betrayal, The Departed examines a pairing of men (one a criminal, one a cop; both posing as the other) and how remarkably similar they are. What truly does separate good from evil? Scorsese poses this question again in The Wolf of Wall Street after stock broker-messianic leader Jordan Belfort, a man who when spit out by Wall Street returns with a vengeance by building his own firm of miscreants and ne'er-do-wells pushing penny stocks on the unsuspecting, and gullible, realizes that his wedding video has been subpoenaed by the F.B.I. Realizing that he is under investigation, Belfort invites his adversary Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) to his yacht docked in Manhattan. What happens next is perhaps the quietest and finest scene in a movie filled with look-at-me moments. Decked out in regal clothing, sipping champagne on the deck, Belfort lets Denham know that he could be of use to him both professionally and personally. He lets Denham know that he knows of his past desires to be stock broker. He tempts Denham. And the work between Chandler and DiCaprio is topnotch in the scene, as each actor plays the reversal and revelation quite well, and it does not hurt that there is a physical resemblance between them. Denham could be Belfort. The description of his sweaty Subway ride home could not be farther removed from Belfort's yacht or helicopter or private limo. The scene ends wonderfully, a harbinger of things to come, with fun coupons and thrown lobster. Things fall apart.
Rounding out this weird and depraved jungle of wild-eyed capitalists are great performances from Matthew McConaughey as an early mentor, a schlubby Spike Jonze as the Long Island broker who plants a seed in Jordan's mind, and Jonah Hill as an intensely loyal underboss with a love for excess and a connection to Steve Madden shoes. Jonah Hill is impossible to take your eyes off here as Donnie Azoff with his shiny teeth, thick glasses, and hilarious line readings. I think it might be Hill's best performance, an equal achievement to his work in Moneyball. And DiCaprio is at his finest here: physically committing to the ridiculousness of the role, pounding his chest and hitting his forehead with a microphone, bullying customers over the phone, and showing the depths of Belfort's corruption by the end. Is there any actor who could play Calvin Candie, Jay Gatsby, and Jordan Belfort all in about 18 months? Leo remains one of the most exciting actors of our time, making choices that are always interesting, even if it is trying to open a car door with his foot.
I loved the supporting cast with many familiar faces all delivering strong work. At times, the film seems to look at us and marvel at itself: See how shocking I am trying to be? But much of it works quite well, and the film may be the funniest of the year as well. At nearly three hours, the film flies by, and though simultaneously sickening and exhilarating, Scorsese's film points the camera at the audience by the end, making us implicit in our enjoyment of Jordan's excess while also very aware that getting rich quick is always on our minds. In The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio's character quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne with "Families are always rising or falling in America," and Belfort proves adroit at both actions as well as the art of survival. And a closing shot of bedraggled Agent Denham on the subway set to a Lemonheads cover version of "Mrs. Robinson" has us looking victory in the face, in all of its shabbiness with a version of a great song that isn't nearly as good as the original: "Every way you look at it you lose."