[23 December 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s one of the best films of the year and yet few critics groups will acknowledge it as such. It easily trumps that equally effective imitator American Hustle and clearly proves, once again, that when handed a storyline, a source, a star, and a sense of purpose, no one can direct the shit out of something better than Martin Scorsese. Call it Greedfellas or Corporate Casino, but The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the skyrocket rise and A-bomb like fall(out) of financial conman Jordan Belfort and his Quaalude and coke fueled boiler room that seemingly begets everything bad about the ‘80s is one of 2013’s most audacious and rewarding experiences. Yes, the studio screwed the pooch on its award season timing in this case. It doesn’t matter, the movie is a near masterpiece even without all the falling over themselves tin accolades.
In a standard Scorsese way, we are introduced to Belfort (an absolutely brilliant and unbridled Leonard DiCaprio) as he is starting out his stock market tour of duty. Immediately dressed down by one of the big shots at the firm he’s just been hired by, he is taken under the wing of the more down to earth and Zen partner, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughy). It is from his snow-stained lips that many of the lessons Belfort would exploit as part of his own eventual business model would emanate. After losing his job rather quickly, our neophyte entrepreneur discovers the ripe for the pickings world of penny stocks. With the help of a newfound associate named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and some salesman pals from the neighborhood, Belfort builds his operation from a dingy garage in the boondocks to the fanciest digs in the financial district. Along the way, he divorces his first wife, takes up with a stunning blonde named Naomi (Margot Robbie) and draws the attention of the FBI (Kyle Chandler), hoping to nail him and his firm for multiple illegal acts.
As he does every time he takes on such epic material, America’s auteur finds subtext in scope and insight in the increasing downward spiral of his lawless heroes. The Wolf of Wall Street does for white color crime what his previous classics did for the mafia and street justice. Without focusing on the fallout from these unbelievable bastards (we get one phone call showing how Belfort roped in and ripped off his victims, but that’s it) and using their excesses as examples of tragic hero failure, we end up with an endless rollercoaster of stellar set-piece and brave character concerns. In essence we are watching our present preplanned by the past, a world where the Bulls and the Bears buffer their loses and work out their winnings off the backs of those who believe the market is a “safe bet.” Like the telling line in Casino, the key for Belfort and his crew are to keep the suckers on the hook and to keep them playing.
This is the movie Oliver Stone wasn’t brave enough to make, a caustic comedy which illustrates all the shortcomings in his “Greed is good” god love letter to Gordon Gekko and his corporate raiding ilk. For those concerned about how this scheme worked or how Belfort got away with it for so long, seek solace elsewhere. This is not one of Scorsese’s tell-all explanations on an otherwise hidden world. Instead, it’s a fly on the wall farce where no dollar amount is too big, no pile of coke too tantalizing, no whore to skanky to indulge in. Oddly enough, it’s those elusive ludes, not a certain white line, that influenced much of Belfort’s boiler room. As a matter of fact, there is a fabulous sequence where DiCaprio and Hill, after taking several supposedly super strong pills, try to function during a crisis. The results are so amazing, so wrapped up in both the physical comedy of the past and the scatological slapstick of today that the scene ranks right up there with some of the best moments in the history of movies.
It’s thanks to the actors that The Wolf of Wall Street works. Even though he’s only in the film for a brief scene or two, McConaughy gives great guru. One can easily hear his insane mantras being adopted by wannabe MBAs around the globe. Similarly, Chandler’s harried G-man has a great moment where he gets to dress down an arrogant Belfort on a football field sized yacht. The irony is delicious. Of the few ladies present, Ms. Robbie remains the movie’s secret weapon. At first, we fear she will just be agreeable eye candy. Then she starts to take apart her hedonistic husband, warning him about the consequences of his actions and, before we know it, she’s gone from bombshell/borderline bimbo to the most levelheaded and likable character in the film. No matter what happens, we want Naomi to get out from under Belfort’s malignant machismo and desire to master his constantly fleeting destiny.
But it’s DiCaprio and Hill who outdo themselves in the buddy film facets of their relationship. The latter turns the former on to crack (in another amazing, laugh out loud moment) while the boss becomes the mentor to his underling’s growing desire for the good life. J. Edgar aside, DiCaprio has been giving Oscar caliber performances over the last few years and The Wolf of Wall Street is no exception. He is so good here, so perfectly in sync with what Scorsese and the film want to accomplish that his mere presence makes you giddy with anticipation. Sure, Belfort is an asshole, the kind of man who robs from those who can’t afford such commercial ransoms and gives to himself, but he gets so much specious joy out of the act that you can’t help but urge him along. Hills helps his own cause by flashing a pair of fake front teeth (the result of an early veneer job) and doing his best stoned stooge routine. Together, they create a classic comedy team, except instead of mining mere laughs, their digging up some insane debauchery as well.
Indeed, The Wolf of Wall Street is a choice change of pace for Scorsese, a narrative where gore is replaced with gratuity and the nastiest tricks of the criminal trade swapped with bare breasts and candles up the ass. The hits these men procure are made up of various recreational pharmaceuticals and the only regrets come at the point of a subpoena, not a competing family’s gun. It’s one of his funniest, most frenzied efforts and at nearly three hours, it speeds by like a floor trader on amphetamines. The fact that Paramount missed the boat here means that, yet again, DiCaprio and company will more than likely be left out of the mandatory January through March gold statue brouhaha. No matter, it’s the movie that counts in the end and in the case of The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a wonder to behold.