Fear and Loathing on Wall Street
If there is one thing that can be said for certain about Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, it sure as hell doesn’t hold anything back. Packed with all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll you can find in a movie today, the legendary Scorsese has given us a film so wild that it makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas look like a Scooby Doo cartoon. Unlike Terry Gilliam’s gonzo classic however, The Wolf of Wall Street is a misfire; an entertaining but shallow piece of work that’s not nearly as important or grand as it thinks it is. The best thing you can say about the film is that it would be a triumph for any other director. For the man who has brought us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull among others, it’s a disappointment.
Unbelievably based off true events (though some names have been changed), The Wolf of Wall Street tells the tale of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who in the late 1980’s arrived in Wall Street looking to make a career as a stockbroker. After losing his job following Black Monday, Belfort eventually starts his own firm with neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) called Stratton Oakman. Over the next several years, the firm takes off and makes Belfort, Donnie and co. more money than they can possibly dream of. However, the events transform Belfort from a well intentioned young man to an out of control womanizing drug addict, who isn’t afraid to cheat on both his wives (Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie) with hookers any chance he gets. Oh, and there’s also the fact that Stratton Oakman is embezzling much of its clients money, something that puts Belfort in the eye of the FBI, especially agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler).
Even before the film’s release, The Wolf of Wall Street was being compared to Goodfellas, Scorsese’s early 90’s classic about the rise and fall of a gangster. However, while the film does have some similarities in themes, quality wise The Wolf of Wall Street more resembles Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby (also starring DiCaprio) from earlier this year. Like Gatsby, Wolf of Wall Street simply doesn’t know what it wants to be. The film, marketed as a black comedy, doesn’t have enough serious moments to have a Goodfellas feel, but it also makes the cardinal mistake of laughing with its characters and their actions instead of laughing at them. This wasn’t shocking when The Great Gatsby made this mistake, as Lurhman has become well known for falling in love with his world a little too much. For Scorsese though, it’s a complete surprise. Adding to the problems as well as is that The Wolf of Wall Street is hopelessly over the top to the point that it surpasses the excess of Gatsby. Most of the near three hour running time is spent focusing on the numerous scenes of drug use and sex (there are at least two orgy scenes in the film). The problem isn’t that the scenes are there, it’s that there’s simply too many of them, especially when you consider there’s little to no scenes showing the FBI investigating Belfort or the victims of his schemes. At two hours, the film could’ve worked with the excess; at three hours and little other substance, it amazingly descends into a state of boredom.
As flawed as the film is though, Scorsese is far too talented of a director for the film to be a complete waste, and the film does have flashes of brilliance. The first half of the film is by far the most restrained and enjoyable, as the comedy is at its most fresh and Belfort is at his most relatable. While perhaps trying a little too much to emulate David Mamet, the script by veteran writer Terrence Winter is a solid one with a few gems sprinkled throughout. Amazingly though, Scorsese’s best work comes from his choice of music. Since he began his directing career, no other director other than Quentin Tarantino has had the keen eye for music in film as Scorsese, and he delivers again here with the help of Robbie Robertson (former lead guitarist of The Band, who Scorsese immortalized in The Last Waltz). Every song choice, from Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Membrane” to The Lemonheads cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” work perfectly within the film and help create memorable scenes.
The main reason to see The Wolf of Wall Street is Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivers his best performance ever. Yes, as great as he was at essaying the charismatic Jay Gatsby earlier this year, DiCaprio goes all out in delivering his most daring and comedic performance. Even as the film stalls, falters and goes off the rails, DiCaprio’s Belfort is always there to keep things interesting and is clearly giving everything he can to the film. Unless the film drags him down, he should be one of the two favorites to win the Oscar for Best Actor.
Unfortunately for Leo, no one else from the cast (which looked great on paper) comes close to him, mainly because Scorsese doesn’t allow any of them to have more than limited screen time. The four performers closest to being standouts are Matthew McConaughey (continuing his unbelievable career revival), How I Met Your Mother’s Cristin Milioti, Rob Reiner (as Belfort’s father) and Kyle Chandler. At best, these four receive a combined half an hour of screen time, perhaps less.. This is especially egregious in regards to Chandler and McConaughey, who each deserved far more time than they got. Margot Robbie, as Belfort’s second wife, looks like she’ll be a star, but she has little to do as well beyond being naked and acting like a money loving trophy wife. The three worst casting choices however are Jonah Hill as Belfort’s partner, Jean Dujardin as a Swiss banker and Jon Favreau as Belfort’s lawyer. Favreau’s role is completely unnecessary, whole Hill and Dujardin are just bad. Dujardin’s casting is a tad more forgivable as his screen time is small, but Hill’s casting in this film is simply inexcusable. It’s hilarious to watch Hill try to hang with DiCaprio in their many scenes together; as expected, Hill is no match.
Ultimately, I can’t say The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t worth seeing. For all its flaws, the film is entertaining and worth seeing if only to catch a glimpse of the best performance of 2012. It’s by no means a failure. However, when Scorsese looks back on this film a couple years from now, he’ll likely see it more as a risk that didn’t work out. It’s a shame, because with a little more tightening in the editing room, Scorsese may have had a great film, and it’s interesting to wonder if Scorsese would’ve been better off waiting to release the film so he could work on it more. As it is though, the best way to describe The Wolf of Wall Street is the scene where Belfort makes love to his second wife for the first time. In the scene, he climaxes too early. Ironically, so does the film.