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Josh Reviews The Wolf of Wall Street

At seventy-one years old, Martin Scorsese has unleashed upon us a work of towering ambition and accomplishment, with a rabble-rousing energy and anger that far outstrips most films made by filmmakers half his age.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour epic, fiercely entertaining and stomach-churningly upsetting all at the same time.  This is Mr. Scorsese working at the very top of his game, crafting a story that is at once epic in scope and profoundly intimate.  This is a crime saga that stands tall next to Goodfellas and Casino, films that I never thought Mr. Scorsese would be able to equal in the later years of his careeer.  (And yes, like most of the rest of you, I agree that Goodfellas is a stronger film that Casino, but I unabashedly love Casino and find it to be a remarkably under-appreciated masterpiece.)

But whereas Mr. Scorsese’s previous films about the rise and fall of men involved in organized crime always felt, to me, like stories that took place far outside of my personal frame of reference, the genius and power of The Wolf of Wall Street is that Mr. Scorsese has found a crime story that strikes much closer to home, at least for me.  I don’t work on Wall Street, but crime-without-guns seems much closer to the world of my day to day life.  This crime story is mostly populated by men and women who I feel like I could have known.  This particular crime story doesn’t involve bullets and dead bodies, but rather bloodless financial transactions that, nevertheless, affected arguably a far wider number of every-day Americans.  The story is all the more horrifying because of it.

The center of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort.  Wen the film opens we see Mr. Belfort at his opulent height, but the film quickly flashes back to several years earlier, to a young Mr. Belfort’s first day on Wall Street.  He catches the eye of a senior man in the firm, Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey).  Hanna takes Belfort out to a booze-filled lunch, and lays out for the young man the fuck-your-clients, earn as much money for yourself as you can principles by which he operates.  We can see Belfort buy in immediately.  (Mr. McConaughey is only in a few scenes at the start of the film, but he is absolutely fantastic, and this lunch scene is astounding.)

Despite his skills, though, young Belfort finds himself out of work after the terrible day on Wall Street in October, 1987, that resulted in the firm that employed him (L.P. Rothschild) shutting its doors.  With no Wall Street firms looking to hire stockbrokers, Belfort finds himself a job at a tiny Long Island business selling penny stocks.  But Belfort distinguishes himself wildly in this tiny business, making money, and he soon gathers around himself a core of nobodies who he trains to be fearsome salesmen.  The group, led by Belfort, create their own new agency, called Stratton Oakmont (an apparently meaningless name chosen because it sounds classy and established).

What follows is a thrillingly compelling story of Belfort’s rise to extraordinary heights of wealth and debauchery, and of course his eventual stupendous fall.  The Wolf of Wall Street stands proudly, as I suggested at the beginning, among those films that have chronicled the rise and fall of fiercely driven men who sought to excell outside of the law’s boundaries: Goodfellas, Casino, Scarface.  The film is long (three hours long — it is Mr. Scorsese’s longest theatrical film ever, besting Casino by one minute), but Mr. Scorsese uses every minute wisely, bringing us inside Belfort’s world as we see, step by step, the strategies behind his rise, as we live his debauched lifestyle, and eventually as we watch him take his much-deserved fall.

The middle section of the film does indeed spend a lot of time chronicling Belfort’s extreme, obscene wealth-fueled lifestyle of booze, drugs, and women.  These lengthy sections of the film are at equal turns hilarious and nauseating.  There is a lot of nudity in the film (and a lot of terrible language — according to wikipedia, there are more uses of the word “fuck” in this film than in almost any other movie ever made!).  I have read some accusations that Mr. Scorsese trivializes (or, even worse, glorifies) Belfort’s transgressions by allowing us all to enjoy and laugh at his crazy lifestyle.  But I think that accusation misses the point.  Like the great crime films I have mentioned above, the genius of Mr. Scorsese’s work here is that he recognizes the allure of the driven, outside-of-the-law figure, and he allows the audience to in some ways root for Jordan, and to dip our toe into the dream we all might in some way share of one day attaining the type of wealth he achieved.  But Mr. Scorsese never let’s the audience forget just how depraved and hollow a life Jordan was living, nor the screw-others way that he earned his money.  The time we spend following Belfort’s drugs, money and women fueled hedonism only drives home the point of what a scoundrel he was.

Your mileage may vary, I suppose.  I suspect there are many people who will watch this film and not find any of it funny in the least, and there are certainly moments in this film that might offend.  (How impressive that Martin Scorsese, at age 71, can still make a film that can shock and offend!)  There’s a moment, early in the film, in which an extreme close up is eventually revealed to be a woman’s behind, out of which Mr. Belfort is snorting coke.  I laughed, while my wife cringed.  Then there is the moment, at a wild company party, in which the Belfort gives a female employee $10,000 if she allows the men to shave her head.  The resulting imagery is straight out of the Holocaust, and I don’t believe that was an accident.  The scene is horrifying, and it’s in moments like these that Mr. Scorsese slams home his condemnation of these men and their antics.

This film represents the fifth time that Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have collaborated, and this feels like the film they have been driving towards for so long.  What a phenomenal synergy of director and star, a connection that finally begins to approach Mr Scorsese’s long partnership with Robert De Niro earlier in both of their careers.  Leonardo DiCaprio is phenomenal in the film, absolutely magnetic.  We can see the intelligence of this man, the fierce will to succeed, and his extraordinary charisma and the sway that gives him over others, men and women who want to be with him and/or to be him.  Mr. DiCaprio delivers some magnificent monologues in the film, including one exhortation speech to his salesmen that comes close to rivaling Alec Baldwin’s famous “always be closing” speech from Glengarry Glenn Ross.  He’s also hilarious, particularly in the horrifying and oh-so-funny scene late in the film when Belfort, high off his mind on ‘ludes, has to crawl from the lobby of a country club to his car parked outside.  Mr. DiCaprio also shows us the horror of this man, of his selfishness and his greed and his almost pathological disregard for others.

Jonah Hill plays Belfort’s right-hand man and best buddy, Donnie Azoff.  Right from Mr. Hill’s first scene, in  which Donnie introduces himself to Belfort at a local diner, it was clear that this was a special performance. I have always thought Mr Hill was a terrific comedic actor, and he’s also done some fine work in dramatic roles (such as Moneyball).  But I have never seen Mr Hill really create such a distinct character before.  I love his look, I love his shiny teeth, I love his raspy voice.  I love everything about the performance, it is really phenomenal.  Hill’s Donnie is, like all of the events chronicled in this film, both dispicable and extraordinarily memorable.

All the members of Belfort’s main crew of guys are terrific.  I have to highlight, in particular, the work of John Bernthal (The Walking Dead) as Brad, the buff, Jewish drug-dealer who becomes a key figure in helping Belfort launder his money.  (It was also great to see the wonderful Ethan Suplee (from Mallrats!) in a Martin Scorsese film — I never thought I’d see the day!)  Some spectacular actors show up in supporting roles throughout the film.  I couldn’t believe they got Rob Reiner to play Befort’s dad. Mr. Reiner is so good it’s crazy, and it only emphasizes what a shame it is that Mr. Reiner doesn’t act more often these days.  I already mentioned Matthew McConaughey’s great role early in the film, a highlight of the movie.  Jon Favreau pops up as a one of Belfort’s advisors, and Jean Dujardin is a riot as the Swiss banker with whom Belfort gets into bed.  (I love their “telepathic” showdown the first time they meet!)  Bo Dietl (famous to any fans of Imus in the Morning) plays himself (he really did work for the real Jordan Belfort) and he’s a lot of fun (though we don’t get to hear too many classic Bo Dietl-isms in the film, which is a shame!).  Kyle Chandler is also great as the FBI agent on Belfort’s trail.  (He and Mr DiCaprio only get one meaty scene together, but it’s a doozy.)  Cristin Meloti and Margot Robbie are both gorgeous and very memorable as Belfort’s two wives.  (I was impressed by how well both of them held their own with Mr. DiCaprio in some truly tough scenes.  Great work.)

The soundtrack is fantastic, the editing is sharp, the cinematography is gorgeous.  I really have nothing but praise for this film.  What a thrill it is to see Mr. Scorsese back telling the types of stories that he tells so well, making a film with such extraordinary energy.  And what a shock to the system it is to watch a story that, while technically a period piece, is so powerfully relevant.  When watching the film, I assumed that Jordan Belfort’s fall came some-time after 2008.  In fact, his reign of making millions off of the unsuspecting backs of others ended far earlier, back in 2003.  And yet, this film could have so easily been set around 2008.  All the details would have been exactly the same, just the names (and perhaps the types of drugs, though maybe not even that).

The Wolf of Wall Street is electrifying.  It’s a bucket of cold water in the face of Americans about what is going on all around us, but it is not a boring polemic.  It is a thrilling, hysterical, horrifying tale.  This is a masterwork by one of the greatest directors working today.

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