This review was written for and published first on This Is Online, an online magazine for students of Web Content Writing.
Allow me to make an assumption: you have never participated in a midget-tossing contest. You also have never driven a Lamborghini on quaaludes or had sex on a bed lined with millions of dollars. Your appreciation of The Wolf of Wall Street—last year’s Oscar-nominated Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey—hinges on whether you will enjoy the vicarious experience of over-the-top shenanigans like these, by hopelessly reckless people a la The Hangover.
Unlike the Hangover crew’s romp through Vegas, this chronicle of a debauched rise and fall from Wall Street grace is based on real-life Wall Street wolf Jordan Belfort’s book of the same name. The film follows Belfort (DiCaprio) as he rises from slinging penny stocks to overseeing his own brokerage firm as CEO, but Wolf wastes time along the way, focusing much of its two-and-a-half hours on attention grabbing, Gatsby-esque party scenes. This backfires about half-way through, exhausting rather than exhilarating.
The parties are purposeful, though. Early—again, too early—we tire of Belfort’s drug abuse and hollow moral core, forcing us to decide whether he’s the protagonist or simply someone we’re asked to watch slowly implode over the course of a few hours. In the wake of television’s Walter White and Tony Soprano, Belfort is an antihero—despicably immoral yet somehow, for some time, the subject of our empathy.
McConaughey plays Mark, a cocky established broker who on day one shows Belfort the real side of Wall Street—the greedy, careless, and unfortunately brilliant side. This is clear when he tells the waiter to bring enough martinis for them to “pass the fuck out,” then even more clear when he tells Belfort his keys to success: masturbation and cocaine. It’s a short role, but well performed.
Steeped in sex, drugs, and alcohol, Wolf allows DiCaprio and Hill to give great performances in perhaps their most memorable scenes. Quaaludes, the pinnacle party pill for the rich and reckless, at one point have Hill’s character Benny, a wispy New York nerd, in such a daze he masturbates in front of Belfort’s party guests. Later, after losing most motor skills, DiCaprio hilariously rolls down a flight of stairs and begins a quaalude-spastic crawl to his Lamborghini—in which he manages to get home, pinballing off trees and traffic all the way.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese uses fast, erratic jump-cuts during party scenes and long, smooth panoramic tours around the office. More than three times the camera follows Belfort around his office as he explains the illegality of his latest business deal with composure. These office tours let DiCaprio’s charisma shine, usually segueing to one of Belfort’s rousing speeches. These leave hundreds of rich white men pumping their fists and screaming like animals, and leave us pondering the scope and implications of this dodgy firm’s inevitable demise.
After so much success, wealth blinds Belfort. He believes you solve problems by getting rich—he preaches this to his office, inducing primal excitement just short of a riot—but problems stemming from his success linger and create the film’s main conflicts. After a Forbes profile dubs Belfort “the Wolf of Wall Street,” the FBI begins to watch his every move—namely agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who Belfort is unable to bribe or elude. The latter half of Wolf is spent wondering if Belfort will swallow his pride and cut a deal with agent Denham or continue life as usual: hiding behind his money and the idea that money makes him invincible.
The entirety of The Wolf of Wall Street is a wild, surreal ride with scenes and performances that will shock their way into your memory. It’s a good example of how film can stretch itself in aiming for critical (symbolic camerawork and editing) and commercial (drugs, sex, alcohol) success. But the exhaustive focus on parties, some seeming like filler, makes me wish it leaned more towards the critical side. This is not an admonition, just an expectation from this dream team of actors and a talented director. Watch it, if only to experience vicariously the lifestyle reserved for the world’s richest party animals.