One of the few things I knew about The Wolf on Wall Street before seeing it—as someone who steers clear of press to avoid expectations and bias—came courtesy of a friend on Twitter who wrote, “COCAINE!!! TITSSS!!!! MONEY!!! QUAALUDES!!!’–script for The Wolf on Wall Street”. What read as funny beforehand was hilarious afterwards.
For being three hours long, Martin Scorsese’s eighteenth film knows the secret of how to keep an audience engaged with content that barely wavers.
And while his direction created some great moments, Scorsese’s real feat is quietly tapping in to our curiosity of the opulent—and we’re greedy enough to have difficulty looking away. The problem is whether or not we’re laughing at the right things.
Based on the memoir of the same name, The Wolf of Wall Street follows Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he works his way up New York’s stockbroker game, refusing to back down when his power-hungry addiction leads to security fraud, abuse, and manipulation—plus every overindulgence you could ask for.
As expected, the film delivers some brilliant performances. With relatively little screen time, Matthew McConaughey steals the show when he embodies both the comical and disgusting with ease, somehow making his character cartoonish instead of over-the-top as so many are here. Margot Robbie shows she’s more in control as a mother than with her appeal as a mistress. Jean Dujardin’s forever-contagious smile drops the loveable charm of The Artist in favor of shark teeth as a Swiss banker. And then, of course, there’s Leo, so spot-on with his character that it’s difficult to imagine him being anything but Jordan Belfort outside of the film.
It’s no secret that The Wolf of Wall Street is disgustingly over the top.
For those who are unprepared, Scorsese cuts to the chase by having Leo snort coke out of a woman’s ass in the first five minutes of the film. If you can’t handle that, yes, walk out now; you’ll be joining the likes of several members of the Academy.
Not only are the characters stroking themselves, but so is the film itself. It gives a faster education in the differences between drugs than any high school health course can. It lingers on excess-filled scenes long enough for viewers to actually pick up on each atrocity, thanks to longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker. And for the grand finale, it broke the record for the use of “fuck” in a major motion picture, dropping the f-bomb 506 times; granted, it had an extra hour and a half to outdo its competition, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam.
Perhaps that’s where it falls short.
The film is lavish, gaudy, but presented in a way where its dark humor can be lost in the flash. Many moviegoers seemed to find the glitz of its content a distraction from the characters. But how could Scorsese make it more obvious? His dark humor lies in the vileness of it all: genuine dreams of wealth, hedonistic excess, and lack of concern for others. Wall Street is filled with herds of animals numb to their own repetition of life and desires—this isn’t something we didn’t already know. Cheesy ’90s pop punk Simon & Garfunkel covers keep any passivity in relaying this image at bay, magnifying an office already spilling its overload of sleazy bros out the windows.
Everything is terrible, and so we laugh. Or, apparently, only some of us.
The movie presents itself in a way where it’s unclear if audience members know what they’re laughing at. Far too many people sitting next to me were wide-eyed with admiration for Jordan. You never hear the voices of his victims, from the penny stocks to the big leagues. Why else would his success seem so appealing?
From the beginning we’re told, bluntly, how empty words sell. Leo shows a baby burp of a company how easy it is so spin a web of words, yet two hours after that people are nodding their heads as he wings a speech so shaped by in-the-moment passion that his cheeks turn red. “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.” Yes, Mr. Belfort, give us more. He’s fueled by excitement from the volume of his own voice. Empty words for the vapid.
The Wolf of Wall Street has a message so obvious that Scorsese didn’t think a dramatic reveal was necessary. At that point, the audience has overdosed on junk food and is clutching their stomachs in pain. Perhaps trimming half an hour could have made Belfort’s verdict more stunning, but when you’re sick from too many sweets, you already know you’re going to throw up later. The intent is to feel numb to it, even as it crumbles in horrifying ways.
At least if anyone really does come away with hopes to be the next Belfort, it’s easy to spot a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET | RATED R | IN THEATERS NOW