Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the sole voice and spirit of Martin Scorsese’s 2013 Oscar nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street. And he holds our attention for nearly three hours. Debauchery of every kind is on display, boys will be boys behavior is rampant, cocaine and naked women aplenty. This is the early 90’s at an upstart Wall Street brokerage firm where everything is in reach at excessive levels and inappropriate macho behavior is the norm.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort with a brash confidence, exuding cockiness and a cavalier attitude. It would be hard to dispute it as one of Dicaprio’s best performances. In a scene with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort smokes crack with his newly acquainted friend and business associate. There is a joy and manic aspect that is so wonderfully comical in this scene where Jordan is just so happy to be high on crack. He also has a scene much later in the film where he is paralyzed from delay released Qualudes and has to painstakingly make it home from the local country club.
These are incredible moments of comedy coming from a 70 year old master filmmaker who you can imagine cackling off screen at these perfectly executed scenes. Jonah Hill while having a comedy background has done a tremendous job when given more hefty roles. As Donnie, he’s absolutely hilarious in every scene that he’s included, at times upstaging Leo. One of the debates that raged when the movie was released was if it glorified this bad behavior, if the film itself was misogynistic.
Now I contend that while The Wolf of Wall Street does show a lot of simulated sex, drugs, general mistreatment of women, it shows these things as being ultimately excessive and destructive. And yeah it’s from the guys point of view or Leo’s point of view so it’s stylized to a satirical perspective. It does ultimately show Belfort’s downfall, how pathetic he becomes, what he loses, what he’s reduced to. And while Jordan’s identity at his company is that of the head honcho and the man to look up to and the leader of the pack, he’s a complete wimp when it comes to his wife. Margot Robbie burst onto the American cinema scene with her performance as Naomi Lapaglia or the Duchess of Bay Ridge. Matching the acting intensity of a great like Leonardo DiCaprio is no small feat and Robbie holds her own, even perfecting the Brooklyn, New York accent better than Leo.
Martin Scorsese has perfected the stylish crime and gangster pictures with music, editing, creative and intuitive composition and framing and a fundamental understanding of cinema. So as I sat down to watch The Wolf of Wall Street again, it occurred to me that it was structured almost entirely like Goodfellas. There is one voice who tells the whole story just like in Goodfellas. There are multiple digressions piecing together the whole narrative and all the players, put together much like a movie trailer. The same type of stylistic storytelling that Scorsese is known for with some breaking the fourth wall by DiCaprio, intimating how illegal what he and his company were doing. It shows the rise and downfall of a prominent criminal albeit a white collar criminal. That’s really the difference between these two movies, the class difference of Wall Street crooks like Belfort and the lower class ones like Henry Hill.
The jokes are there, the humor, the camaraderie between friends and colleagues. If it’s one thing Scorsese is brilliant at it’s his ability to write such funny dialogue in an otherwise serious narrative structure. And while The Wolf of Wall Street feels like a ride in an amusement park there is always the lingering feeling that it’s all going to come crashing to a halt. The party can’t last forever. We see these characters do terrible things, say horribly offensive things, assault people, commit crimes, take money from people who don’t have it to give. The enjoyment of the excess is at the cost of every day normal people, just like organized crime.
Eventually the social cost is so high that no amount of scheming will prevent them from coming for you. The film is gorgeous, showing the beautiful homes of the stockbrokers and their families, the cars, the clothes, the accouterments of early 1990’s Wall Street wealth. It might be Martin Scorsese’s most beautiful film. The story spans almost three hours and for the entire runtime I found myself totally immersed and never bored or momentarily distracted. It’s an amazing accomplishment to keep an audiences attention for that long and be that interested and captivated by what is happening on screen.
In a nutshell it’s the idea of a life that a teenager might have. Getting to eat whatever you want, dream cars, dream girls, more money than you’d know what to do with. So much that you have to start storing it in Swiss Banks. As the movie shows this lifestyle is not sustainable, it’s not healthy, and it creates more problems than it solves. At the end of the film we have Jordan Belfort being looked at by an audience at an event. He’s there to give them the keys to succeeding, how to sell people. He’s walking around the room asking each person to sell him a pen. The brash and confident demeanor reappearing from it’s shelled cocoon. The final shot of the movie is the audience looking to or at Jordan, depending on your point of view.
Are they looking to him for answers? Are they just another group of sheep waiting to be slaughtered? Or are they pretty disappointed with what they see, do they simply see the shell of the man he once was? That final thought always haunted me, not sure if they, despite all he has done and that we have seen, still want the keys to the life he had. Are we that deluded as a people? That lost to want a life that is merely a projection? Or do they know better? Is there hope for us to learn from what we’ve experienced? To learn from the past? I believe this is what Martin Scorsese was really trying to get to, make an entertaining movie but ultimately ask an important and haunting question. Is there hope for us?