THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is the incredibly entertaining new movie from director Martin Scorsese (Michael Jackson’s BAD), based on the memoir of scumbag fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort (executive producer of SANTA WITH MUSCLES), adapted by Terence Winter (writer of a 50 Cent video game and 2 episodes of The Cosby Mysteries). Leonardo DiCaprio (POISON IVY) plays Belfort in the saga of his meteoric rise from innocent Wall Street rookie to multi-millionaire cokehead innovator in greed and callous thievery. After THE GODFATHER and all these other classics that show how organized crime operates like a business, here Scorsese flips it around to show how business acts like gangsters.
Man, we take it for granted after so many big, showy movies with great directors – or we don’t want to admit it ’cause he’s still got kind of a baby face and we remember when he made the teenage girls faint in their pants – but jesus, DiCaprio sure has turned into a good actor. WOLF is Scorsese picture #5 for him, and it seems for a while like he’s mostly doing his usual moves. He’s got the intensity, the energy, the accent that’s old timey and not very naturalistic but he goes so all-in that I buy it, the face that teeters between boyish and Benicio Del Toro. Early in the movie he even crash-lands a small aircraft and stumbles away, as if he’s doing callbacks to THE AVIATOR. He should do that in all his movies, it could be his “I’ll be back.”
But he does all that and then every other actorly thing that there is: lots and lots of yelling. Smashing things. Crying. Hysterical laughing. Threatening. Begging. Talking nice to a baby mid-domestic dispute. A whole lot of grandiose speeches running the gamut from whispery/weepy/full-of-dramatic-pauses to Leonidas style whipping-the-troops-into-a-frenzy. He definitely had to practice his microphone techniques for this one.
He does a whole lot of fuckin. He shrieks like a girl as a dominatrix tortures him. He does an Oompa Loompa dance. He smokes crack. He snorts Scarface amounts of coke (some of it after blowing it into a gal’s butthole). He drives too fast while getting a blowjob and too slow while nearly paralyzed by quaaludes. Those are his favorite treat and he uses them to demonstrate several levels of incapacitation. During a hilariously drawn out scene of trying to get to his Lamborghini without the use of his limbs, and another one where he and Hill get tangled up in a long telephone cord, I started thinking DiCaprio was throwing himself into this physically like Bruce Campbell did in EVIL DEAD 2. This is truly a king of the world performance.
Let’s be honest, they hired him because he’s starting to look like Benicio and Benicio played the wolfman. And then, as in THE LONE RANGER, they cut out all the werewolves to keep the budget down. But I’m glad they did it. It works.
Scorsese’s filmatism is as energetic and invigorating as ever. He’s got DiCaprio narrating in first person, sometimes talking directly to the camera and leading us around like he’s the host instead of the star. He’ll start explaining how some stock market thing works, then stop and laugh that we don’t understand what he’s talking about anyway so who cares. (And that’s why they get away with this shit.) Scorsese gives him the power to change what we’re seeing, like when he corrects a red Ferrari to white. He uses inserts of still photos like we’re looking at a catalog of Belfort’s ludicrously excessive luxury items – look at all my shit! – even has Robin Leach narrate about his yacht, and depicts a major story event in the style of a shitty ’90s infomercial. Somehow all this comes off as playful, not haphazard like some of Oliver Stone’s gimmicks. It’s like GOODFELLAS meets FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS meets AMERICAN PSYCHO.
Remember, DiCaprio almost starred in AMERICAN PSYCHO as his followup to TITANIC. He wanted the role bad but Mary Harron would’ve quit. Now we get to see kinda what that would’ve been like.
This is also more outwardly comedic than usual Scorsese, lots of jokey cutaway flashbacks like on The Simpsons or Arrested Development, and long, funny conversations that seem like Apatow style improvisation. For example there’s the one where the heads of the firm discuss the legal liability of dwarf tossing, and keep referring to the poor guy they’re hiring as an “it” or a “thing.”
No surprise that alot of the laughs come from actual Apatow vet Jonah Hill as Belfort’s partner Donnie Azoff, leveraging his status as an Academy Award nominated person from MONEYBALL into another good supporting performance (now with 100% more public masturbation). It’s also not a surprise that Matthew McConaughey is hilarious as the boss who teaches naive young (digitally youthened?) Belfort how to be a huge fucking asshole. (Note: McConaughey’s not in this a whole lot. He dives in, makes a splash and then takes off, the Alec Baldwin in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS or Dolph Lundgren in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION maneuver.)
Hats off also to Jon Bernthal (Shane from The Walking Dead), a great actor that I bet will get some more high profile roles soon. He has a couple really funny scenes as a weightlifting drug dealer dipshit who helps with the money laundering.
I noticed that there are a couple directors who have roles in this: Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Spike Jonze. No Herzog or Cronenberg, sadly. Or Argento. He could’ve been the Jean Dujardin character. I guess maybe that would be weird though.
Kyle Chandler shows up as quiet, humble FBI Agent Patrick Denham, who is intent on busting this asshole. My favorite scene in a movie full of favorite scenes is when Belfort invites Denham and his partner onto his yacht to claim innocence and attempt a bribe. Denham plays stupid for a while but when he lets his true feelings be known the two sides begin to flip each other shit with aplomb. DiCaprio has a line about what he calls hundred dollar bills that’s worthy of Danny McBride. I want to believe he improvised that one. Belfort is so fun to watch and yet you really want Denham to nail his ass to the wall.
Like any Scorsese movie there’s a great soundtrack. Robbie Robertson from The Band is the music supervisor. At first there’s alot of blues and jazz, imbuing these douches with an aura of working class soul that they don’t deserve. Later they get more yuppie appropriate music, and as the years progress there’s some mainstream hip hop (Cypress Hill, Naughty By Nature, a guy who I saw coming out of a Thai restaurant one time who won a Grammy for a song about butts).
Here’s a character modern enough to have a yacht party with a bunch of assholes doing the “hey, hooooo, hey, hoooooo” from “Hip Hop Hooray,” yet dated enough that he still has a loyal black maid who calls him “Mr. Jordan,” like he’s still in DJANGO UNCHAINED. It’s a good way to illustrate the kind of dicks we’re dealing with here. They have wacky fun at work like a frat boy version of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and there’s almost always an underlying cruelty or degradation to what they’re doing. For example there’s a scene where they pay one of their female employees $10,000 to let them crudely shave off her long hair in front of everybody, and announce that she’ll use the money for breast implants. Real Ted DiBiase shit. These people are savages, screaming, pounding their chests, pissing and jacking off in public. Donnie has three kids with his first cousin and eats a man’s goldfish to punish him. They literally hold a middle finger up to the phone while fleecing innocent strangers, and make speeches about “fuck America.” When Belfort begins an announcement about turning himself in for the good of the company, and in the middle decides to stay and openly mock the rule of law and the basic concept of fairness, his employees turn into a frenzy of whooping and hollering testosterone goons worse than any Wrestlemania crowd. They legitimately believe that some sob story he tells about turning a hard working single mother into a mega-rich stockbroker makes it okay what they’ve done. They’re remorseless monsters.
But they wear ties and drive nice cars, so I guess they’re legit. And besides, if he knows he’s bad then it almost doesn’t count, right? He describes his yacht as “fit for a Bond villain” and has Sharon Jones singing the theme from GOLDFINGER at his wedding. Man, that wife of his really should’ve paid attention to the lyrics:
“The man with the midas touch
A spider’s touch
Such a cold finger
Beckons you to enter his web of sin
But don’t go in
Golden words he will pour in your ear
But his lies can’t disguise what you fear
For a golden girl knows when he’s kissed her
It’s the kiss of death from Mister Goldfinger”
See, he’s knowing! He’s self-aware! Pop culture! Maybe he’s an ironic swindler. So it’s okay everybody, he’s cool. Right?
You can’t help but see parallels with GOODFELLAS. It’s another real life crook who thinks he’s awesome, revels in sharing his story about how he did it all, then gets caught and turns rat. The comparison is important because of how different things end up for the white collar crooks than the street ones. Okay, these wolves never killed anybody, but they defrauded people of hundreds of millions of dollars and ruined countless lives just so they could roll like Caligula. They’re the scum of the earth. But in the end Belfort doesn’t get shot, or have to go into witness protection in Seattle where he doesn’t approve of the phad thai (Sir Mix-a-Lot didn’t seem to have a problem with it Henry Hill you fuckin whiner). He gets 22 months playing tennis and then (encouraged by his cellmate Tommy Chong, in for selling bongs!) writes the book the movie is based on, even gets to have a cameo. He’s a free man and still super rich, same with the real Donnie. Fuck those guys.
I kinda don’t even want to bring this up, but most of the reviews I’ve seen of this movie have been coming from a defensive position, because apparently some dumbasses who don’t understand movies have been saying that Scorsese means to glorify the degenerate predators whose horrible lives he’s depicting. It’s one of those things that is just so stupid and clearly incorrect that it’s too bad everybody with half a brain has to waste their time trying to spoon feed the basic self-evident facts to the people making this argument. What, did you need it to be called BAD STOCKBROKER? Calling the guy a wolf in the title was too ambiguous for you?
As much as I fear idiocracy I also believe that stupid opinions like that can fade away and be forgotten. For example remember all the knuckleheads who were convinced that STARSHIP TROOPERS was a pro-fascist movie? Or the ones who thought BATMAN FOREVER was really good? I do believe both were majority, conventional wisdom type opinions at one time. So don’t worry about it.
What I do think you can argue, though, is that it has an unintentional effect, like the way they say that you can’t make an anti-war movie because no matter what atrocities you show certain people are gonna think it’s awesome and high five each other and rewind it to watch it again. Or you can’t make SCARFACE without a bunch of famous rappers thinking it’s an inspirational Horatio Alger pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps type of tale. Without a doubt there will be some athletic-fit-suit-wearing motherfuckers who will see this as a great story about a lifestyle they should aspire to. But you know what, there are also people who jerk off to that My Little Pony show, so what are you gonna do? For normal, sane people this is an extremely well made movie that respects our intelligence enough to know that we will be against this behavior even if they don’t come out and make a speech at the end about how it’s wrong.
I refuse to cede great movies to the boneheads who need obvious shit to be explained to them. People who think that showing misogynistic characters being misogynistic means the movie is misogynistic. God forbid these people happen to see a movie about slavery or the Holocaust. Hey guys, there are plenty of simple movies we can enjoy together or that you can enjoy without me. If you can’t hang with THE WOLF OF WALL STREET or ZERO DARK THIRTY just don’t worry about it, it’s okay that there are ones that aren’t for you. Don’t try to take my movies from me. Go read an infographic.
If there’s anything to worry about it’s this shitbag Jordan Belfort gaining some kind of weird cultural legitimacy from having a great movie made about him. I don’t mean that anybody would condone his crimes, but that he would be seen as this interesting person that people want to hear from now, like G. Gordon Liddy or Chopper Read or The Bishop Don Magic Juan. Of course I’m all for second chances, but nobody including him would tell you he got much of a punishment, and now his swindle is to teach people salesmanship. Hey suckers, you can learn how to lie and trick people just like I did! The movie knows he’s full of shit when he makes a bunch of people pay for the same dumb shit he said to his moronic low level drug dealer friends earlier in the movie, but the guy is a charmer, I’m sure he can still get people to believe it.
I do think that Jordan Belfort, celebrity is probly what’s gonna happen, a sad illustration of the point the movie makes. These people offended by WOLF would feel more comfortable if the bad guys clearly lost in the end (and if there was less butt stuff). But of course that would be bullshit – this guy did get away with it, these people do get away with it. The wolves eat the sheep and then they laugh about it and charge speaking fees. (That should be a good thing in Belfort’s case because half of it is supposed to go to restitution for his victims, but apparently the deadbeat hasn’t even paid most of that.) This self-aggrandizing asshole wrote a book about ha ha, I was such a rascal, can you believe how high I was? Ha ha. The salesman selling himself, pumping and dumping his own life. He knew he had a crazy story but he might not have fully understood what a symbol he was for a certain sickness that permeates our culture.
All we can do is remember not to fall for the Jordan Belfort pump and dump. The last thing we want is for more of these assholes to get away with it. It’s not a couple of bad apples, it’s a bad fuckin tree. So I’m glad there’s a hilarious roller coaster ride of a movie that shows them all for the depraved assholes that they really are.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.