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Film review: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

December 27, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street in quality’s clothing

Scorsese’s latest is a timewaster disguised as an epic

★★ (out of 5 stars)

The Wolf of Wall Street is in disguise. Cloaked in the costume of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, and based on the sexually charged, drug-infused, money-mad memoir of conman Jordan Belfort, it wants to be a darkly comic masterpiece. But when Wolf’s skin is stripped away, what’s left is a film as bloated and misguided as Belfort himself.

DiCaprio, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, is Belfort, a scheming and disgusting yet – except for his time in prison for fraud and stock-market manipulation – overwhelmingly successful broker, author and motivational speaker. After his release from jail in the late 1990s, he wrote about his experiences and eventually sold the movie rights to DiCaprio. Following a difficult pre-production, Terence Winter was hired to write the screenplay and Scorsese to direct, after Ridley Scott and Warner Brothers dropped out.

Scorsese described the developmental process as a waste of five months of his life, and that’s also a good way to describe how it feels to watch the finished product. Instead of balancing comedy and drama, Scorsese, in a miscalculation, has gone for broad humor with small dashes of drama. He’s asking us to laugh not at Belfort, which the creep deserves, but with him. The result is an embrace of his crass, amoral and misogynistic lifestyle, complete with multiple tutorials – and visuals – on how to do drugs, cheat investors, hire hookers and objectify women.

“The way I looked at it, their money was better off in my pocket,” says Belfort, who learned that lesson from his first Wall Street boss, a slimy character played by Matthew McConaughey. It’s been quite a year for McConaughey, but his odd, brief performance here is distracting, mostly because he’s only a few pounds above his scarily skinny Dallas Buyers Club weight.

The rest of the supporting cast is competent and even amusing at times. Jonah Hill is Belfort’s closest friend, Rob Reiner is his father, Jean Dujardin is a Swiss business partner, Kyle Chandler is the FBI agent pursuing Belfort, Joanna Lumley is his aunt, and the seductive Margot Robbie is his frequently naked wife, whose “pussy was like heroin” to Belfort. Yet they, and even the usually reliable DiCaprio (whose first-person narration often breaks the fourth wall), are such stereotypes that one never sees past their orgies, bare butts, or outrageous antics to find humanity or realism.

Some films have good editors. Some films have bad editors. This film appears to have had no editor at all. Never before in a Scorsese movie have there been multiple scenes that could be entirely excised, including one whose sole purpose seems to be to hurl jokes at little people, after we’ve already seen the actual hurling of those little people. Taking away too many of these moments would rob the film of its comical charisma and energy, but there is simply no need for the three-hour runtime, which turns Wolf into one of the longest, most tedious movie-going experiences of the year.

On the plus side, there are some photographic flourishes and wildly sexy scenes, which almost got the film an NC-17 slam. And you won’t soon forget the ferociously funny episode involving DiCaprio and Hill getting stoned out of their minds on quaaludes, but it’s all too excessive and undisciplined, leaving you not titillated but just tired – and, like one of Belfort’s victims, feeling conned out of your money.

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  • Jim

    a complete film, I do not think that “The Wolf of Wall Street” holds up
    against a movie like “Saving Mr. Banks.” However, I did enjoy it.
    Yes, I enjoyed it for all the reason that I hate it. Let me explain.
    Not one character has a redeeming quality
    to him. Every scene was, well, obscene. It glorifies everything wrong
    with America. It will be watched over and over by the same crowd that
    enjoyed films like Depalma’s “Scarface,” Ferrara’s “King of New York,”
    or Medak’s “Romeo is Bleeding.” I would be shocked if it won any
    awards. I will be pissed if Leonard Maltin does not crush it in a
    review. However, for one-liners, scenes of debauchery and evil
    capitalistic behavior, this movie is the best. For a movie to get any
    emotion from me is a win. This did not get a sentimental nod like
    “Saving Mr. Banks” but it did grab a victimized feeling not unlike I was
    the sucker in some ponzi scheme. That has to be worth something.

  • Cameron Meier

    Jim, thanks for the comment. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, yes, the movie is definitely worth something. EVERY Scorsese movie offers us something. That’s the reason this is a 2-star (on the Weekly’s 1-5 scale), not a 1-star.

  • austinburns

    We must have watched different movies. Or are you one of those “contrarians” that I hear so much about?

    This movie did not embrace Belfort’s lifestyle. This movie laid bare all the gross realizations of the consequences of excessive greed and consumerism. The behavior on the screen was disgusting and it was meant to be disgusting.

    It was an amazing critique of Wall St., especially the part in the beginning with McConaughey where he says, “We don’t make anything. We don’t build anything.” Scorcese means to make the audience think, “Hey, yeah! They don’t actually *DO* anything, so why do they deserve all this money?”

    It was not glorifying in any way, and if anyone thinks that it does, I think that says more about the viewer than the film.