I put Martin Scorsese’s cinematic morality play, The Wolf of Wall Street, on my Top Ten film list for 2013. In part, because it defies good taste and proper etiquette to go balls-out on the outrageous story it tells.
Some critics have already put The Wolf of Wall Street on their Ten Worst film list for 2013. In part because of those same excesses. Taste is, of course, a matter of taste. The point is that Scorsese’s unfettered, undisciplined and operatic drama is not for everyone. Scorsese also careens beyond the walls of reality into a hyper-space where fiction trumps fact. That makes some people squirm.
The Wolf of Wall Street purports to tell “the true story” of Wall Street broker and fraud artist Jordan Belfort, who bilked investors out of millions in a series of swindles in the 1990s. Eventually, the well-dressed scumbag spent 22 months in jail for his white-collar crimes, for which he was ordered to pay $110.4 million in restitution. He did the time but his pay-backs have fallen drastically short. The U.S. government is currently negotiating for millions more than he has paid so far.
This should come as no surprise, given that Belfort is a convicted swindler. And the portrait that Scorsese and lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio (in their fifth collaboration) paint of him in the film is that of a charismatic man who is also extremely selfish, egotistical, misogynistic, unrealistic, unreliable, and morally bankrupt. I suspect that this is closer to who Belfort really is than his own autobiographies portray.
In other words, Belfort was the perfect candidate to start his own stock brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, in the free-wheeling ’90s. The film, which screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) adapted from one of Belfort’s best-selling books about himself, takes us from Belfort’s early career as a rookie stock broker and through the halcyon days of drugs, booze, babes, prostitutes, dwarf-tossing contests at the office — and the making of many millions of dollars. The final act leads to his comeuppance and downward spiral. The real Belfort is now an inspirational speaker for hire.
DiCaprio chews him up and spits him out as a larger-than-life character. DiCaprio serves as narrator, as well as protagonist, hero and villain. Beaming when he is up and brooding when he is down, DiCaprio is as charismatic as Belfort must have been, in his prime, to be able to get away with the illegal nonsense he indulged in with such unbridled joy.
Scorsese populates the rest of his ensemble with some remarkable people: Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s lieutenant, is as good as he was in Moneyball. Matthew McConaughey offers a hilarious cameo. Margot Robbie is sexy and sensational as Belfort’s trophy wife. Jean Dujardin does a nice bit in English and French as a sleazy Swiss banker. Rob Reiner plays Belfort’s cynical dad, and filmmakers Spike Jonze and Jon Favreau show up in supporting roles.
The film looks beautiful; the loose editing creates an overlong but still compelling structure; and Scorsese finesses the way the film pulses — like Belfort’s racing heart — with a dangerous jazzy rhythm. The Wolf of Wall Street is a blatant comedy. It is also deadly serious as it showcases how public greed leads directly to opportunities for swindlers like Jordan Belfort. We can revel in it while we learn some lessons about the real world.