Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Review

            Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street recycles many of the most familiar tropes of the “rags-to-riches” and “fall from grace” narratives he has worked with throughout his illustrious career.  The result is a rare disappointment from Scorsese – a massive, sprawling film whose overall satisfaction does not add up to the sum of its individual parts.  In many ways, it resembles Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, another larger-than-life epic widely misunderstood and criticized for its abstruseness.  The story, the characters, the setting are all intriguing – but does that that necessarily add up to a competent and interesting whole?
            The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a real-life stock broker who, shortly after the “Black Monday” of 1987, realizes that the untamed and unregulated market of penny shares and junk bonds is the real ticket to success.  The early scenes of the film capture this well; Belfort assembles a motley crew of small-time drug dealers as his salesmen, eschewing the conventional Harvard MBAs for guys who lack diplomas, but have the street smarts to captivate potential buyers with empty promises.  Soon, he and his partners, including a bispecled crack-addicted dweeb named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), are earning 50 percent commissions on the shares of illusory company stock to unsuspecting everyday customers.
            One of Scorsese’s best qualities has always been his ability to create elaborate real-life settings which the viewer is gradually introduced to with the help of the protagonist’s narration (think the tortured, run-down night streets of Manhattan in Taxi Driver or the ornate upper-crust bourgeois society of the 1870s in The Age of Innocence).  We only get a limited glimpse of the world of penny shares and “pink sheets” in The Wolf of Wall Street as a result of Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter opting instead to emphasize the decadence of Belfort’s extravagant lifestyle once he hits it big.  There are scenes of luxury cars and yachts, trips to Europe, orgiastic parties, and above all else, incredible amounts of drug consumption.  We are left wondering how any work ever gets done at the firm of Stratton Oakmont.  We are also left wondering (A) why anyone would continue to invest with the firm after a scathing portrait of Belfort is published in Forbes magazine, (B) why the Securities and Exchange Commission fails to recognize any of the rampant wrongdoing in the company’s sales practices, and (C) why a prominent shoe designer (played by Jake Hoffman) would choose to place his company’s highly sought-after IPO in the hands of such outlandish boors.
            Of course, this is not necessarily a criticism of the film.  Indeed, one of Scorsese’s points seems to be that the toxic “anything goes” atmosphere of Wall Street during the 1990s was obviously conducive to hedonism, wild excess and unmonitored corruption.  But after seeing endless arrays of party scenes such as Leo snorting cocaine out of a hooker’s ass and Jonah Hill taking a piss on subpoenas handed out by the FBI, we get the point.  What’s missing from the film is any deeper sense of introspection or process.  At several points, Leo interrupts his exposition by merrily telling the audience, “But who cares about the details, right?”  Well, the details here are pertinent, and because so many hapless real-life investors were swindled out of their money right in front of them, such a blasé attitude by the filmmaker feels similarly cheap and condescending.  
            In addition, this undercutting of process leads to scenes of endless partying that feel repetitive and tedious by the second hour.  To be sure, some of Belfort’s antics are highly improbable and humorous, such as trying to drive home in his Lamborghini while feeling the effects of decade-old Quaaludes or being rescued in the middle of a Mediterranean sea storm during an ill-advised sudden voyage to Monaco.  The inclusion of these scenes feels like Scorsese is saying, “If you don’t believe this story can get any crazier, just watch” (perhaps he should have included a humorous intertitle of this, like Michael Bay did in Pain & Gain).  Fortunately for Scorsese, we believe him – what Belfort does is frequently crazy and over-the-top.  But unfortunately for the viewers, these scenes do not add up to a coherent whole that has any underlying message.  If there is one, what is it?  That being a millionaire stockbroker is fun?  That it makes you have fewer responsibilities?  That you feel invincible?  Even when these ideas were explored in GoodFellas, they were assuaged with scenes of brutal and unexpected violence. 
            The other prominent characters in The Wolf of Wall Street are Belfort’s two wives – the first, the mousy Theresa (Cristin Milioti) who seems to have come right out of a Madonna music video, and the second, Naomi (Margot Robbie) a blonde diva who Belfort lusts after because, oh I dunno, this kind of movie always seems to demand a perfunctory juicy adulterous subplot.  There’s also Belfort’s father, the apoplectic Mad Max (Rob Reiner), who Jordan hires as some sort of hitman for clients failing to pay up, and Manny Riskin (Jon Favreau) whose job it is to keep SEC investigators at bay . . . I think (but hey, the details aren’t important, right?)  There’s also Jean Dujardin as Jean Jacques Saurel, Belfort’s Swiss banker in charge of laundering money out of the country once the feds’ investigation begins to accelerate.  There are also the cronies at Stratton Oakmont who are occasionally funny, but pretty unmemorable as far as Scorsese bit roles are concerned.  The one supporting character who leaves a lasting impact is Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey, in what amounts to essentially an extended cameo), who first tells Jordan that the only way to survive on Wall Street is to indulge in prostitutes and drugs.
            I am of two mindsets when it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street.  The first mindset would be to forgive Scorsese for the indulgence of the three hour running time and the superficial portrayal of Wall Street corruption by conceding that Scorsese is anything but conventional.  This is a director who is always willing to push the envelope and take serious risks, and here, it isn’t just the excessive scenes of debauchery, but the idea that the best way to translate the outrage of the Wall Street fallout is to show Jordan Belfort at his most extravagant.  Like After Hours, this is a movie that uses dark comedy to lighten extremely serious subject matter that, in many other hands, could have been treated as cold, aloof, and deadly serious.
            But unfortunately, I lean closer to the other mindset, which is to hold Scorsese accountable for a film which is vapid, over-the-top, and frankly, just as sybaritic as its central character.  With this film, Scorsese and DiCaprio had a real opportunity to probe the mindset of unscrupulous magnates who created mass webs of lies and corruption in order to Get Rich Quick.  Maybe it is a tacit indictment to show Belfort as stupid as he comes off in this film.  But what is truly perplexing is the lack of Scorsese’s sense of morality and guilt, usually themes that resonate so strongly and profoundly within his narratives.  The victims in The Wolf of Wall Street are never shown, never given names or personalities, and their losses go unseen.  The calamitous effects of Ponzi schemes and hedge fund rackets are still being felt in today’s precarious economic environment – shouldn’t this interest Scorsese?  Why is this completely ignored?  Instead, the film concludes with a frustrating scene recalling Henry Hill’s nostalgic yearning for the old criminal life.  This, I feel, is a misstep and emphasizes an already obvious point about the unbending immorality of the Belfort character; Scorsese would have been wiser to look at the bigger picture of the fallout’s wider social impact.
            Martin Scorsese is the best living American director – perhaps the greatest director of all time – and every film of his merits significant attention.  With The Wolf of Wall Street, he tackles an ambitious and important story, but opts to spend too much time emphasizing the stuff that we, for better or worse, already know.  In a way, the movie comes dangerously close to celebrating Jordan Belfort’s heedless determinism as a product of wayward American upward mobility.  I doubt this was Scorsese’s main intention.  Thus, in the end, the details don’t seem to matter as much as the frustratingly vague larger message. 

Rating: 2 stars


  1. I wrestled for a bit with what appears to be a 'no judgments' kind of attitude toward Belfort, but I came to the conclusion that Scorsese is willing to allow Belfort to tell his own story--which has an episodic, anecdotal sort of feel to it ("This one time...")--and to allow the audience the chance to hang Belfort from his own rope, so to speak. However, I do believe that there is a little more to it than simply exposing Belfort's decadence to our indignation.

    There are moments, as Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman from Red Letter Media point out, that imply a subtle but profound tonal shift, such as the quick cut to Belfort's young daughter during the Quaaludes sequence, and that point to the consequences of Belfort's lifestyle and choices. But these are so brief as to be skimmed over, and I think that the film is content to allow the audience to take note of or ignore these moments as they choose. The implication of this is a more sophisticated moral dynamic that amounts to a film that is willing to judge its audience on their attitudes toward Belfort--since judging Belfort at this point in time would be moot.

    An example would be Steven Perlberg's Business Insider article in which he recounts viewing the film on Wall Street with a theater full of finance execs who cheered on Belfort's more heinous acts. Perlberg takes the film to task for not condemning Belfort, but I suspect that his disgust with the audience may be the film's point: In this way the film acts as an angled mirror that allows the viewer to see the reflection of the Calaban sitting next to her/him, even if he can't or won't see it himself.

    In short, I think the film eschews the easy task of celebrating or condemning Belfort in favor of allowing audiences to make of him what they will. If the Goodfellas structure serves any purpose at all, it is to create a connection to the conceit that the American dream of material success is best and most effectively realized outside the law; that for those born outside of an elite caste, wealth is only accessible by illicit means because it circulates legally only among the wealthy.


    Business Insider:

    Red Letter Media:

  2. So disappointment means it wasn't good? M'kay... So you have this as his worst movie?

    The reason why Belfort continually interrupts himself and shows us rather than tells us is because the script is based on his memoir. The voice-over and breaking the third wall is not mimicking "Goodfellas", rather making the movie documentary-like. Like the other commenter stated, we are letting Belfort tell his own story. We are not going to look at the details of what happens to the victims because, well, similar to "Boiler Room" (based on the same firm), no one wants a depressing story about Wall Street. In "Boiler Room", we get one look at a victim, and they make up with him in the end. However, whenever Belfort states "The details aren't important," he is normally interrupting what was about to be some complex Wall Street lingo, which would isolate the audience. Not every movie can pull off "The Social Network" dialogue and still make it entertaining throughout. If we started hearing the details of how everything worked, then it really would have been a documentary and had nothing left for Scorsese and Winter to embellish in. And besides, we are watching a movie about guys in their early-mid 20s who are getting filthy rich quicker than what would be considered humanly possible. Every bit of partying, debauchery, and naivety is absolutely realistic. We are seeing the movie from their perspective, and once Belfort learns to fudge the truth to the first few investors, his morality is all but gone and the victims do not matter to him or the viewer. He is no different than...say...Walter White in that way. We are not meant to relate to him.

    Calling the 3 hour run-time indulgent is a bit irresponsible. Any shorter and the movie would not have really been able to complete the story. Each scene seemed perfectly relevant to establishing either character development or mood. Any longer, and it would probably have been bordering on too long. Maybe Winter could have adapted it into a miniseries at that point.

    Oh, and your A, B, and C issues we are left wondering about are all explained in the movie, but hey, details of this review aren't important, right?

  3. Both points are valid and well-stated. I will first say that I didn't mind the "GoodFellas" voiceovers, and that neither the narrative structure nor aesthetic decisions were the problem. I concede that maybe I went into the movie with expectations of something wildly different, and again, I give Scorsese props for being unconventional and unpredictable. As someone who's read about every book published on Bernie Madoff, I was expecting a portrait of a tortured Wall St. genius confronting the problems of being able to outsmart everyone (perhaps not too unlike "Social Network," Todd). But I can't deny my opinion that the movie was tedious, repetitive, and didn't really offer anything new.

    Carl, I agree that vilifying Belfort is too simplistic an approach, and that Business Insider article is fascinating. Especially considering the thin line between viewer/buyer that exists for audiences (watching both the feature film as well as Belfort's infomercials). But in the same vein, reading the movie as some sort of Pavlovian experiment feels like an apology for the lack of clear condemnation directed toward Belfort. Because of this ambiguity, the resolution feels formless and almost trite ("we ourselves are to blame as much as Belfort") when the reality is, this is Nuremberg logic. What could "we" as viewers could have done to prevent Belfort's antics? Even American greed, it can be argued, is the product of larger capitalist social values. The movie begins to probe this at times (like the scene on the yacht with Kyle Chandler), but then wanders off into scenes of Leo dry-humping stewardesses.

    Todd, no Scorsese movie will ever be worse than "New York New York." I disagree that embellishing in the details of pink sheets and penny shares would have been boring. "IPO" isn't that foreign of a term, and bypassing it feels condescending. By that logic, "Apollo 13" should be boring. I get that the movie is about Belfort's lifestyle, just as "GoodFellas" was about the mob's lifestyle. The difference is, in "GoodFellas," every action is inextricably attached to killing, stealing, and backstabbing. Here, the debauchery feels too separated from the business (or, put another way, the film's treatment of Wall Street feels vague and doesn't offer anything new). It may have been more interesting to create Belfort as hard-working and disciplined but tragically ill-intentioned, like Zachary Quinto in "Margin Call" (or maybe closer to Paul Bettany). But again, I don't want to project my expectations into what the movie could have been. I just didn't find it that interesting after 60 minutes. And about the A, B, C questions -- OK, the movie sort of answers the second question, but A and C are still unclear to me.

    I know I'm in the minority on this movie -- and in a strange way, I wanted to give it three stars because although it is deeply flawed, it still is interesting, even in the ways it is flawed (I only checked my watch once). And every Scorsese movie should be seen. I just suspect that the majority of moviegoers will find the material repetitive and skin-deep.

    1. Ok, Zach. I just want to say that the mob life in "Goodfellas" is inherently more serious than the broker lifestyle in "Wolf". The indulgence in excess is just reality for the same reason that the brutality of "Goodfellas" is reality. Again, 20 somethings who are filthy rich and feel invincible. They load their bodies with every sort of drug and watch their empire grow...because they can. Like McConaughey's character states: everybody wants to get rich, quick. Everyone looks for a loophole, and Stratton Oakmont's founders found and exposed that loophole. I am sure that if Henry and Tommy were still young they would have been partying all night and snorting coke off hookers, even back then (or at least if it was written by Terence Winter). This also brings us back to my comparison of it to "Margaret". The characters are unlikable, juvenile, and emotionally distant, but they are always genuine. Painting the characters in that light is risky and makes watching their actions that much easier to be objective least to me

      It is becoming more and more clear that the majority is mostly with you, though. Only the occasional review is ecstatic about it, and most people I know are more on the negative. No one will be Switzerland with this movie...except maybe Terry. We both know Ebert would have done flips for this movie.