Since starring in 2002’s “Gangs of New York,” Leonardo DiCaprio has made five films with director Martin Scorsese. Their most recent collaboration, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is their best, although it is not without flaws.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” stars DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker convicted of securities fraud and corruption in the 1990s. Although this admittedly sounds uninteresting, DiCaprio is at the top of his game as the bombastic and overly self-confident Belfort. He comes of age during the pre-crash 1980s, landing his first gig with a blue-chip firm headed by Mark Hanna, a successful yet quirky guy played by Matthew McConaughey, who teaches Belfort how to play the Wall Street game, including lots of extramarital sex and the liberal use of cocaine.
After the Wall Street crash of 1987, Belfort lands a job at a tiny firm selling worthless penny stocks. The high commission rates, coupled with Belfort’s knowledge of blue-chip sales and his natural sales ability, make him a millionaire. He then partners with Donnie Azoff, played by Jonah Hill, to form his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which he originally staffs with drug dealers. As the firm’s success grows, Belfort, Azoff and their cohorts engage in wild, outlandish parties full of drugs and prostitution. Eventually, FBI agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler, and the Securities and Exchange Commission bring down Belfort and his empire.
Before discussing this film’s flaws, let me mention what works well. First, DiCaprio is excellent. Perhaps no one was better suited to play this role – one that might finally earn him the coveted Best Actor Oscar. I thought his subtle,nuanced performance in Sam Mendes’ 2008 picture “Revolutionary Road” was better, but he is excellent here as well.
Second, given the depressing and disgusting subject matter, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is hilarious. The slow-motion drug use sequences involving Quaaludes are some of the funniest ever filmed. And actor/director Rob Reiner turns in the funniest supporting performance of the year as Belfort’s high-strung father.
Unfortunately, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is seriously flawed in one major area. DiCaprio, Hill and the entire Stratton Oakmont staff are way over the top. Their high-pressure yet childish behavior is so cartoonish as to be unbelievable. Their scenes are more of an allegorical warning against greed than a true depiction of a corrupt Wall Street firm. And do you know what? I wouldn’t mind the dreamlike nature of the Stratton Oakmont scenes were it not for the fact that all the other characters play their roles straight. In other words, the FBI investigation unfolds like a television drama. Belfort’s first wife, a hairdresser who warns him about letting greed get the best of him, seems like a real person. Even the gold digger he leaves her for is someone who might have appeared in a more realistic Scorsese picture, such as “Goodfellas” or “Casino.” These characters and situations outside Belfort’s firm are based in reality the firm itself seems to exist in some alternate universe. It’s as though Alex and his three droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” suddenly appeared in an episode of “NYPD Blue.” The two worlds cannot coexist in the same film. Yet they do.
To Scorsese’s credit, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is very entertaining, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it again. But during a great year for movies, I can’t put this film among the best I’ve seen lately. Through no fault of his own, Scorsese’s picture inevitably will be compared to two better films. First, Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic “Wall Street” was a more realistic depiction of the financial industry’s excesses – which is doubly ironic, since Stone’s pictures are often over the top in their attempts to sway our opinions. And second, David O. Russell’s current masterpiece “American Hustle” is a funny, episodic, Scorsese-esque tale of corrupt American businessmen which is an infinitely better picture than “The Wolf of Wall Street” – doubly ironic because “The Wolf of Wall Street” is based on a true story, whereas “American Hustle” is not.
Run that fact through your brain for a minute. Of the two, the true story (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) plays out like a three-hour cautionary dream sequence, warning of the power of greed. The story written directly for the screen (“American Hustle”) is the one that seems like it could have actually happened. I will say again that I liked “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and I appreciate the work that went into making this entertaining piece of fluff. But if you want to see a dark, hard-nosed, wickedly funny, plot-driven saga of corruption, go see “American Hustle” instead.