There is no question Martin Scorsese is one of the best filmmakers that ever lived, and because we know this, we go into his movies assuming he’s got something special to say. Granted, he does have something to say in all his films, but I we might be cutting him too much slack. I remember the passionate reaction to Hugo, a movie that does have a sweet and heartfelt message, but whose first half is dull and dispassionate. It seems to me like the same thing is going on with The Wolf of Wall Street. People are raving like crazy about it, calling it a masterpiece and one of Scorsese’s best. Now, there’s some good stuff to be found in The Wolf of Wall Street, but I wouldn’t call it a great film.
The plot of the movie isn’t really important. It’s basically Goodfellas set in the world of Wall Street. Leonardo DiCpario stars, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, as real-life broker Jordan Bellfort, a young man who dreams of making it big in the financial world, gets corrupted reasonably early and becomes a rich son of a bitch. After Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby and now this movie, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to have moved on from his “guy who has a death wife” phase and gotten really into playing petty characters that are obsessed with money and power. I certainly don’t mind, since he is much, much better at playing these kinds of characters. His performance in Wolf of Wall Street is probably the best work he’s done since Catch Me If You Can (which I still think is his best work). Apparently DiCaprio is the one who approached Scorsese with Bellfort’s story, and judging from the level of commitment in his performance, I believe him. Perhaps the single best moment of acting DiCaprio has ever done comes midway through the film, in a scene that takes place late at night at a country club which I’ll only refer to as the “lemmons” scene for those who don’t want to be spoiled. It is one of the best comedic scenes of the year and it all hinges on Leo’s talent.
The movie is a comedy, and it is never better than when it goes all in on being as absurd and over-the-top as it can. A lot of the comedy lies on Jonah Hill, who plays Bellfort’s main business partner, but Scorsese has wisely assembled a talented cast full of funny people. A great example of this is an early scene in which Matthew McConaughey gives a speech that rivals James Franco’s Spring Breakers monologue in insane hilarity. The movie uses its comedy to be a sort of expose on the depraved and morally sickening world of Wall Street. There are more bare breasts and cocaine than you’ll want to see, and in its immature frat-boy style of humor, it ends up having a much more realistic and mature look at the world of New York’s financial district than something like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and especially more than its atrocious sequel.
Some people, as it always happens with a movie like this, have complained that the movie glorifies the debauchery of this outrageous lifestyle. After watching it, though, it seems obvious to me that the film’s main purpose is to condemn this behavior, but I do think it’s interesting to question its ways. This is not really a satire, since the things that go on in the movie are lifted from the memoir of the real life protagonist. This shit really went down, and the fact that it is so absurd and stupid makes me all the more enraged about the whole stoke exchange system and the crooks that get rich off of it. Is this reaction what DiCaprio and Scorsese were going for? What about the author? Like i said, the movie is based on Bellfort’s memoir, and the man even makes a short cameo appearance in the movie. What does this tell us about the movie’s views? On the same note, I want to point out to the movie’s last scene involving an FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. What is that scene trying to tell me?
Those are a couple of elements that I can’t fully figure out yet. This is not a problem, though. If anything, this kind of moral ambiguity makes the film richer and more fun to think about. What’s also interesting is that this makes it three movies that have come out this year and are basically period pieces about people trying to make it big in America through criminal activity. The others being David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain. Now, of the three, I think the most interesting is Pain & Gain, thanks to its idiosyncratic and sickening point of view. For all its commitment, I think the people that made The Wolf of Wall Street are still a little too detached from the material. It works, but there is something missing. With movies like Pain & Gain or Spring Breakes dering to go deep into a nightmarish perspective, something like The Wolf of Wall Street feels cold and detached in comparison. It’s funny and gets the job done, but it’s just not as exciting.
Grade: 6 out of 10