THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: There’s No Nobility in Poverty

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – Directed by Martin Scorsese – Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, and Joana Lumley.

It is only in the film’s final act, when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is getting pinched by the feds, when he’s abusive towards his second wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), when he heads to jail, and when he emerges on stage, reborn as a motivational speaker that I realized I didn’t care about anyone in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. That I spent 2.5 hours thoroughly enjoying a film only to realize in the last 30 minutes that I wasn’t all that invested in it speaks to the incredible acting performance turned in by DiCaprio, but when the character of Jordan Belfort needs me to care about either him or his journey, I started looking at the readout on the Blu-ray player wondering just how long it was going to be until it was over.

I greatly enjoyed the passive experience of watching THE WOLF OF WALL STREET but it’s a movie that exists only for Leonardo DiCaprio and Jordan Belfort. While all of the other main actors turn in fine work, the movie doesn’t care about them enough to treat them as anything more than moons circling Belfort, and the end result for me is a slick film big on pyrotechnics and lacking in story.

In essence, what Martin Scorsese has created in WOLF is his own unique brand of gonzo porn, and it’s the first time I can remember watching one of his movies and feeling like he’s been consumed by his own production. WOLF feels much less like a Scorsese film than it does a DiCaprio film, and while it is incredibly enjoyable watching DiCaprio snort, fuck, and pill pop his way through WOLF, it does unbalance the film and rob us of proper context. FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), second wife Naomi Lapaglia, and sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) all have stories to tell, as well, but the film isn’t interested in them as people. They’re little more than functional automatons to reveal different aspects of Belfort’s arrogance.

When Gene Siskel reviewed Scorsese’s Casino back in the day, he noted that the only parts of the film he really loved were the docudrama sequences about the running of a casino and that the personal relationships fell short for him. There are several moments in WOLF where Scorsese starts to give us the docudrama about how Wall Street works, only to have Belfort stop himself mid-explanation and wave the lesson aside: “You don’t care about that,” he says, addressing the camera.

I care about that.

The idea expressed in various places by the filmmakers that this film does not glorify the hedonistic and opulent lifestyle is ludicrous. That’s exactly what WOLF is – a celebration of excess, the cost it takes to get there be damned, and the price one eventually has to pay far less than the heights of success.

To be clear, I’m only faulting the movie for this porntastic approach to Belfort’s story because of how it affects the film’s narrative – I’m not making a moral judgment of the adulation shown for excess. I just wish there had been a proper balance to Belfort’s excesses to help me care more about the film. After he leaves his first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for Naomi, we jump right to the nuptials and then, after another scene of people acting crazy on booze and drugs, we get a title card that reads, “18 Months Later,” skipping past all of the newlywed couple’s happiness to get to their next big fight, which is, not coincidentally, caused by Belfort’s late night escapade with a domineering hooker.

“You don’t care about that” and “18 Months Later” is why gonzo porn proliferated, saving anxious viewers from having to fast forward through the pesky story to get to the next fuck scene. WOLF functions in much the same way – set-ups are minimized in order to get to the next scene of excess.

Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

If WOLF is something less than the sum of its parts, it’s still a fantastically fun movie to watch for 2.5 hours. Leonardo DiCaprio’s particularly powerful combination of star power and acting talent may have consumed Scorsese’s film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a watchable takeover. It’s liberating to witness him bring this hedonistic asshole to life, and for all of his pyrotechnics in WOLF, he’s at his best interacting with other actors. I love the scene in his office when his father (Rob Reiner) tries to read the riot act to Jordan and his top lieutenants. Jordan tries to be serious but he can’t help but join in with the giggles and smart-ass remarks of his buddies. DiCaprio’s strength in this movie is his ability to be the effective ringleader, to be both the alpha male and one of the pack.

I like watching Belfort at work, training his inexperienced drug dealers into successful stockbrokers. I like seeing him show up at a bottom feeding boiler room and hearing about penny stocks, then watching him turn around, make one call, and mesmerize everyone else in the office as he puts two grand in his pocket in a matter of minutes. For all the rightful acclaim Matthew McConaughey received for his brief appearance in the Gordon Gekko role, that scene in the boiler room is infinitely more important to the narrative and much more fun to watch.

Ultimately, I wish THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was a bit more Michael Lewis and a bit less masturbatory, but maybe in the end it does almost as good a job in explaining why we let bankers and brokers and other white collar criminals get off with such easy punishments: they live the life so many people aspire to have. If you want to be rich and do drugs and bang hookers and do drugs off of hookers, the story of Jordan Belfort tells you, “Go for it.” You get all these years of excess in exchange for a slap on the wrist. When Agent Denham is riding the subway home and looking at the other working class folk with their heads down, it’s hard not to see the allure of the Belfort lifestyle. Maybe you’re not into drugs and hooker, but maybe you are into Lamborghinis and big houses and global travel.

The whole concept of “too big to fail” and Eric Holder’s gutless approach to prosecuting financial institutions does far more damage to the American economy than glorifying a criminal in a movie. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET offers a brilliant performance from DiCaprio and excellent performances from every other major actor in the movie, but the story fails to match the performances.

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2 thoughts on “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET: There’s No Nobility in Poverty

  1. I saw this in the theater and while I thought each scene was very involving, I did feel restless for the last hour or so. Unlike you, I didn’t want anything different, I just wanted less. I think the peak of the narrative was when he changed his mind from taking that deal and gave the speech. That should have been the last scene since everything that came after was inevitable. I do give them credit for making a movie about a criminal who essentially never comes to regret committing crimes, only to regret taking so many drugs that he crashed his Lamborghini…


    • I can certainly understand that, Pat. There didn’t seem to be any interest in showing Belfort as changed – I think it says in the movie that 2 years elapse between his decision to change (after the plane explosion) and getting snagged by the feds. It could have been very effective if, after the speech you mention, Scorsese just redid the Layla/piano exit montage from GoodFellas, showing all of the inevitable bits.


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