This was a big movie when it came out. It was sexy, funny, terrifying, and unbelievable in many ways. It’s story about a middle class young man who finds out how to be rich and does just about anything and everything to stay that way. But out of all the guff I’d heard prior to seeing it, everybody seems to have failed to mention one kind of important detail: this movie is three hours long.
Marty, we love you, you know we do, even if the Academy keeps slighting you year after year, but you need to trim the runtime on these films! This was a story of epic debauchery and unreal amounts of drugs showing the lifestyle of a rich stockbroker in the eighties and nineties, and I grant you, it was all well-told, beautifully directed and superbly photographed, but three hours is too long. I could have gleefully cut about a half hour out of this and felt exactly the same way about it after.
The film focuses on the true story of Jordan Belfort and his rise to mega-wealth through a series of unethical and highly illegal stock trading practices. At first, Jordan is just this ambitious kid going after the American Dream, maybe trying to do a little better than his parents did. He has a charismatic and savvy wife, played by Cristin Milioti (the Mother from How I Met Your Mother), loving parents, one half of which is played by the always funny Rob Reiner, and a slick, if atypical, mentor Mark Hanna, played by this year’s Best Actor Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey.
But, after the market almost crashes in the late eighties, Belfort has to reinvent the way he makes a living. The thing is, Jordan is a smart and seductive salesman. He doesn’t just reinvent himself. He reinvents the business, and makes more money than even he may have ever thought possible.
First, hats off to Mr. DiCaprio. Once again, a truly incredible performance. He tends to pick roles that feature an anti-hero or an extremely flawed protagonist, but this was quite possibly the worst person he’s ever played. He played Howard Hughes, aviator/eccentric billionaire/womanizer/OCD nut. He played Frank Abagnale, Jr., forger/con man/Lost Boy. He even played Calvin Candie, despicable abusive slaveowner with bad teeth.
And yet, somehow, I think I hated Belfort even more because this is based on a true story whereas Django Unchained and Candie were figments of Tarantino’s imagination. This guy Belfort was a total scumbag. I know a lot of the aforementioned guff talks about sexualizing and glamorizing the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle that plays out in this movie, but I disagree.
For the lifestyle to be sexualized and glamorized, it has to be desirable, and by the end of the movie, even if Belfort had gotten away with it, I don’t think any of it is desirable. Not the people, not the drugs, not the sex, and certainly not the money. Because it comes at a price. Belfort sacrificed two marriages, his role as a father, his health, his friends, and his dignity all in the name of money. And drugs. Which I find fascinating. If you have that kind of money, why would you want to anesthetize yourself with enough drugs to kill a dinosaur so that you can’t even remember what enjoyment that money might buy on your average night out?
I am a little scarred after seeing it, though. I so could have lived my entire life without watching Jonah Hill jerk off in a room full of people. It was also really terrifying to see someone do that many drugs. Not only because of the consequences that followed, but just the thought of what that amount of drugs would do a person’s body and mind is scary and unreal to me. And seeing how easily Jordan gave up his first wife Theresa (Milioti) for his mistress Naomi (Margot Robbie) was distressing. I didn’t like Milioti that much when she first started on HIMYM, but by the end of the season/series, she grew on me. Had I seen this last year when it came out, I think I would have been on board much sooner. She is a gem in this movie. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time or a lot of lines, but she’s golden.
Robbie is also a wonderful talent, and though it was sad to see Milioti’s character disappear part-way through the story, it was easy to fall for Robbie as the new female lead through the rest of the picture. I hope to see her in some more meaty roles in the future. She starts off as just a pretty face in the film, but she has chops and proves she can handle herself as the story progress. Going head to head with DiCaprio and winning is no easy feat.
I mentioned Jonah Hill’s… public indecency in the film, but that really does not say much about his performance. It was bold and unrestrained, for sure, but there was so much more to his role as Donnie Azoff than being just the sidekick or the goofball. He earned that Oscar nom fair and square, and had he had not had to battle Jared Leto for the Supporting Actor award this year, I think he might have had it in the bag. He was great in Moneyball, but this is without a doubt his best performance to date. It’s raw, funny, absurd and insistent all at once. Hill is a lot of fun when he gets to goof around with Seth Rogen and the guys, but he is a force to be reckoned with squaring off with guys like Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio. I am quite certain that if he keeps making these kinds of movies, he’ll have one of those shiny gold statues sooner than later.
The Content and Aftermath
I have mixed feelings about calling this a comedy. It was funny in that it was shocking. It’s like, oh my God, did he really just say/do/snort that?! The characters were having fun and laughing at the insanity of the situation, so you sort of laugh along in camaraderie and disbelief. However, it doesn’t quite have the weight of a typical crime drama like some of Scorsese’s previous films – The Departed, Goodfellas, etc. – so adding in the “comedy” genre sort of makes sense, but also sort of feels like an oxymoron. A comedy/crime drama? If you say so.
Genre aside, there is no question this is an R-rated film. It’s Scorsese, for one, so whatever might be in the film, you can expect it to be graphic. It’s got plenty of nudity – an abundance might be more accurate. It has quite a lot of sex, but spread over three hours, it’s not any more than any other R-rated movie with sex scenes might have. It has swearing on par with Samuel L. Jackson in a Quentin Tarantino film (from a bunch of WASP-y, dorky guys in suits, no less, which actually makes it more comic than offensive – if you get offended by swear words, that is). It has an obscene amount of drug use, and yes, I do mean “obscene.” “Obscene” might even be an understatement. However, I do not say “gratuitous.” It wasn’t overdone. It was just a LOT.
Even considering all that, and even after I called Jordan Belfort a scumbag and think that all of this amounts to him being a despicable, poor excuse for a human being, I’m going to give him a brief reprieve and explain why this is still a brilliant movie and another beyond brilliant performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort has faults and they are overwhelming at times, but his connection to his friends and to the people he trained and hired at his stock brokerage firm runs deep. He may have run that place like a fraternity, but he went to bat for them when the shit started hitting the fan and the feds started closing in.
His loyalty to his friends and support of the men and women he brought into that office and his willingness to sacrifice himself to save the firm showed he wasn’t just a greedy robot without a heart. An argument might be made that he was trying to protect them in order to also protect himself and his firm’s reputation – an extension of himself and his reputation – but I’m not going to make it. I didn’t really read it that way.
Belfort was a very selfish, egomaniacal bastard, but that place was his baby, it was his life. And it wasn’t just about his name on a door or the amount of money in his Swiss bank account. In spite of who he was and how he behaved, he wasn’t hated by his employees. He was revered. More than that, he was beloved. Those people were loyal to him, too. It’s twisted and insane, considering what they had done and whom they were protecting, but that relationship between Jordan and his friends and his employees was the most human part of the movie. That was what made those three hours not only watchable, but worthwhile.
Sidenote: Comparative Film Study
DiCaprio as Belfort reminded me a lot of his role as Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. I think my mind was connecting the young-guy-having-fun-with-his-ill-gotten-spoils thing, as well as the fact that both are based on true stories about men who were/are convicted criminals.
It was an interesting parallel to me because Abagnale was so likeable and Belfort was so repugnant, yet they were played by the same actor and were guilty of similar “white-collar” types of crimes. I think what made Belfort seem so much worse was that he was a dick to just about everybody and stayed that way into middle age, whereas Abagnale was mostly a sweet, somewhat naive kid who just got off on the wrong foot. And also, he redeemed himself more in the end, consulting with law enforcement on check fraud cases later in his life. Belfort just wound up doing seminars, trying to teach people how to become a good salesperson.
In many ways, both men were products of their respective environments. Belfort, with Hanna as a mentor, learned the lifestyle and the ethics – or lack thereof – early on. Similarly, Abagnale learned check fraud from his father and it seemed like a permissible way to earn money as a young runaway from a broken home. Of course, this isn’t to absolve them of guilt or attribute blame to anyone else. They knew where the lines were, legally, ethically, and otherwise, and made their own decisions about how far they were willing to cross it, but had their circumstances been different, had Jordan not had Hanna as a mentor or Abagnale’s parents not split up, would they have still become the men they became and done the things they did? I think so, but perhaps to differing degrees or in different ways.
Edgy, boisterous, and unsettling, The Wolf of Wall Street looses vices of all kinds upon the world, establishing the idea that stories about white collar criminals can be just as engaging as those about gangsters.
Movie of the year? I don’t think so. Scorsese’s or DiCaprio’s best? Not in my opinion. But was it a great movie? Yes. Yes, it was. Well-deserving of all the Oscar nominations it received, and well worth watching. But if you do sit down with it, maybe break it up into two viewings. Pretend it’s a VHS and you have to take a break to swap out the tapes.
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