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Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

January 3, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The Wolf of Wall Street PosterThe characters in The Wolf of Wall Street behave like animals, beating their chests and grunting, freely having sex whenever and wherever they can, often under the influence of various drugs.  This is a film that is filled to the brim with content, but I couldn’t think of a more entertaining way to spend 179 minutes with a group of unlikeable people.

Director Martin Scorsese already has several decades of brilliant classics under his belt, yet The Wolf of Wall Street still feels like the work of an adventurous young filmmaker who is just getting started.  The film opened on Christmas Day, and has gotten plenty of positive and negative publicity over the last few weeks.

Based on a true story, the title “wolf” is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young stockbroker who got his start on Wall Street in 1987, being taken under the wing of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey).  But when Black Monday costs him his job, he goes into the business of unloading penny stocks on unsuspecting customers who are equally desperate for a piece of the American Dream.

From here, Stratton Oakmont is born.  Founded with his business partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), the company quickly rises in the financial world, as their employees become rich on generous commissions from every transaction.  The money goes into funding their wild office parties and numerous addictions, as Jordan sets up an affluent life for himself with his girlfriend Naomi (Margot Robbie).  But as the company becomes increasingly more sleazy and corrupt throughout the 1990s, they attract the attention of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who is determined give them what they deserve.

I’m always impressed by movie stars who continue to take on challenging roles, and Leonardo DiCaprio is electric in The Wolf of Wall Street, his fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese.  The actor commands the screen with pure manic energy, fearlessly throwing himself into the ribald sexual situations, and even delivering a riotously funny sequence of physical comedy.  Jonah Hill is hilarious, a scene stealing supporting performance that injects pure comedy into the film.  The rest of the large supporting cast is equally strong.  Rob Reiner makes full use of several memorably funny scenes as Jordan’s frugal father, and Jean Dujardin is incredibly amusing as a Swiss banker.

There were several films in 2013 with characters drastically changing and even ruining their lives to achieve some twisted version of the American Dream, including Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and Pain & Gain.  But this is easily the crowning achievement among them.  I think watching the reactions to The Wolf of Wall Street come in over the last few weeks have been interesting, as the film has attracted just as many passionate supporters as vocal detractors.  The latter have accused the film of celebrating depravity, with the former group heaping praise upon the stylistic flourishes and crackerjack acting.

The three hour running time feels a little long, and the characters sometimes have to be endured.  These guys are sexist and homophobic, and we find ourselves rooting for the FBI agent who threatens to bring them down.  But by painting these characters on such a large canvas and placing all of their offensive behaviours front and centre, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes a cynical degradation of the very people that some have accused the film of glorifying.  By putting everything on display, the film is satire and social commentary in the guise of over the top entertainment, and for me the very stroke of genius that Martin Scorsese has brought to the table is that he doesn’t try to make us like the characters.

This feels like a Martin Scorsese picture.  There is a clear authorial voice behind The Wolf of Wall Street that unmistakably belongs to the same artist behind such iconic classics as Goodfellas and Casino.  His longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker has done an excellent job of tying everything together, from the signature close ups and freeze frames, to the sharply written voiceover narration and memorably placed music.  This includes one of the best uses of “Mrs. Robinson” since the song was first heard in The Graduate back in 1967, this time around a cover version by The Lemonheads that represents a different sort of transit ride to close the film.

Working from a dense and multilayered screenplay by Terence Winter, Martin Scorsese has delivered another film that is unafraid of pushing buttons, criticizing the same people that some have accused him of celebrating.  That’s what I admire so much about The Wolf of Wall Street.  This is a darkly hilarious piece of work from a veteran filmmaker, carried by an electric performance from Leonardo DiCaprio.

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