As Jordan Belfort looks out at the brokerage firm he’s built on lies, extortion and excess, he tells every person in the room to get on the phone and “Fix your problems by becoming rich.” It’s a serious second in a minutes-long speech ripped right from the early drafts of Gordon Gekko’s sales pitches that comes with an added bonus of Leonardo DiCaprio not caring how crazy he looks.
It’s also the motivator for every character in Wolf Of Wall Street, 2014’s raciest (and longest) Best Picture nominee.
When Belfort (DiCaprio) is one of many stockbrokers out of work following the 1987 Black Monday market crash, he starts selling penny stocks and earning 50 percent commission from a sleazy outfit called Invest-a-Center. Taking what he learns in the strip mall storefront, he joins up with ambitious Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) starts a firm that targets rich clients with set-to-fail investments, an effort that results in lots of money, lots of parties and lots of law-breaking. Soon his personal life is on the fritz, the FBI is investigating him and there are millions of dollars in cash he has to hide before the wolf’s own house gets blown down by the big bad feds.
Wolf is edgy — so edgy, in fact, that it almost received an NC-17 rating before the director cut more sexual material out (for those who have seen it, yes there was supposed to be more sexual content). It’s as if Martin Scorsese wanted to turn back the clocks to 1976, when everything about Taxi Driver broke conventions and shocked audiences. Since then, his work has been fantastic — Goodfellas, The Departed and even kid-friendly Hugo are some of the best films ever made — but nothing has really shocked audiences. Wolf tries to, but unfortunately modern moviegoers have been exposed to so much that no matter how many drugs, naked women and f-bombs he drops in can make the audience go, “Whoa there.”
Which is really a shame, because with a little more attention to the story rather than the bacchanalia of explicit content, Wolf could have been the best film of the year rather than a piece of Scorsese-always-gets-nominated Oscar bait. Terence Winter‘s script has some fantastic lines, and I’m not referring to the fact that if you put every line of cocaine snorted in the film in a row, it would wrap around the world twice. “It’s in the book, motherf–! The f–ing book!” Jordan yells when his band of merry salesmen don’t get a Moby Dick reference. “I’m never going to Benihana ever again. I don’t even care who’s birthday it is,” Donnie swears after the owner has indirectly caused the firm’s downfall. Jordan’s own voiceovers provide a comical but revealing soundtrack to tracking shots of excess.
But snappy dialogue and amusing narration are nothing if the cast isn’t up to the task, and Scorsese’s stars are definitely willing to take on anything. FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) tells Jordan that most white collar criminals he books come from fathers and grandfathers who were douchebags, “But you got there all on your own.” That journey is what draws more from DiCaprio’s performance than many of his other films. For the first two thirds of the film DiCaprio seems to be playing “Leonardo DiCaprio with No Restraints.” Drugs, despicable spending and the craziest and most manic facial expressions are laughable as Jordan descends a morality staircase — every insane, deplorable action makes the audience think he’s reached his basest, but then he takes another step down with another action far more despicable than the last. This continues through drug addiction, arguments with his wife (Margot Robbie), using his European aunt-in-law, more drugs (including a very funny scene that proves DiCaprio can not only execute but also conceptualize physical comedy), wife beating and almost abducting his own daughter. But as Jordan’s behavior stair-steps down, the quality of DiCaprio’s performance goes up. He’s no longer playing a greedy, one-dimensional goof but a man with attractive charisma, wealth and anti-hero status that you root for despite your best judgment. He is, essentially, the Walter White of Wall Street.
Hill, in another eager-to-please role, is just as good as he was in Moneyball, and if it weren’t for Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club, he would probably be a favorite for the Oscar. Everything about his character, from the bleached white teeth to the “horn-rimmed glasses with clear lenses” is evidence of him trying to fit in with a group that doesn’t accept him — and eventually, he becomes leader of the group. Hill clearly grasps his character’s evolution from wannabe to overly successful manchild, but isn’t afraid to return to his bawdy comedy roots for some of the party scenes and drug experiences.
Not as keen on adolescent nonsense is Naomi, Jordan’s wife, who is flawlessly played by Robbie. Her character evolves with Jordan’s as she goes from his willing-to-do-anything mistress to his relatively moral wife. And it wouldn’t be a Scorsese film without the random popups of actors — Jean Dujardin of The Artist is a pivotal but small character; The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal is almost unrecognizable as Jordan’s childhood-friend-turned-business-partner; Iron Man director Jon Favreau is a legal counselor for the firm; and Rob Reiner is spectacular as Jordan’s concerned but allowing accountant father. Chandler’s FBI agent is passible except for one scene between him and Jordan that shows both hustlers trying to hustle each other in one of the most intense moments of the whole film. The best side character performance, however, comes from one of DiCaprio’s competitors in the Best Actor race. Matthew McConaughey, who transformed in Dallas Buyers Club, is back to his usual crazy self as Jordan’s first mentor.
In fact, even though McConaughey is only on screen for the first ten minutes of the film, it’s his character that starts everything. Jordan has the drive, but from Mark Hanna he gets the know-how (and a few R-rated tips on keeping sane on Wall Street). If there’s any good lesson to be taken from Jordan’s story, it’s that anything is possible with the right ambition. Of course, for Jordan, that ambition is more of a burden as he’s incapable of walking away from success, no matter how illegally it is attained.
The Verdict: Wolf of Wall Street is probably the weakest of the Best Picture contenders this year, if only because its story — which has already been told through Oliver Stones’ Wall Street — gets lost in a pile of strippers and off-the-market pills. Personally, I liked it more than I thought I would, and I’m not sure if I’m OK with that — and you should be prepared for the same feeling.