Pulling Focus: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
“On a daily basis I consume enough drugs to sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month. I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my ‘back pain’, Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, pot to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine… Well, because it’s awesome.”
– Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio)
Show you what all that howl is for
When Martin Scorsese’s lascivious and exhilarating film, The Wolf of Wall Street, opened on Christmas day 2013 it courted immediate controversy. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the film, whether they’d seen it or not, and for Scorsese, such altercations were old hat –– The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was one of the most reviled films of the 80s, for instance –– but for all of Wolf’s explicit sexual shenanigans and libertine drug use, it’s there in excess, but truly, there’s more to be outraged by in Casino (1995) or The Departed (2006).
And cries of misogyny –– Marty has had this recrimination in the past as well –– in a film inundated with cynicism and endless avarice, it’s more apt to describe the film as being misanthropic (most of the women in Wolf are largely more sharp and chic than the men, and we see far less of them than any of Scorsese’s other films) and, ultimately, antisocial. But make no mistake, The Wolf of Wall Street is an umbrage of testosterone and is, top to bottom, the director’s best film in twenty or so years (probably since 1990’s Goodfellas).
“Man, does this movie have a savage bite… It is [Scorsese’s] brashest, most provocative work yet. There is a real verve to Wolf, as if the movie somehow recharged the filmmaker.”
– Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
Hungry like the wolf
The Wolf of Wall Street is a pitch-black comedy that chronicles the rise, fall, and rebirth of real-life New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio in his fifth and finest collaboration with Scorsese, which also netted him an Oscar nomination) during the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Based off of Belfort’s memoirs, it’s obvious right off the bat, as DiCaprio talks directly into the camera, that this is a somewhat biased, altogether lecherous, and unreliable narrator whose greed is matched only by his grandstanding. As Belfort, DiCaprio gives one of his best ever performances, that such a nasty, bellicose douchebag such as he can be so engrossing (and just plain gross) is testament to DiCaprio’s technique.
Belfort begins at the bottom but soon cheats, swindles, and sneaks his way into the big leagues with his brokerage firm and cadre of money-worshipping accomplices, which include Donnie Azoff (a genius Jonah Hill, who also received an Oscar nomination for his considerable efforts), Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (a perfectly cast P.J. Byrne) and more Quaaludes and coke then you can conceptualize.
The more successful Belfort and his buddies become the more Sodom and Gomorrah things get, convening a new wife for Belfort in the form of Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie, magnificent), and attracting the attention of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler, excellent). It’s all a fast-paced, feverish run, like a Sunday drive with Roger Vadim or Tinto Brass.
“The Wolf of Wall Street may be Scorsese’s most fully realized movie, with its elaboration of a worldview that, without endorsing Belfort’s predatory manipulations and reckless adventures, acknowledges the essential vitality at their core… Scorsese unleashes a furious, yet exquisitely controlled, kinetic energy, complete with a plunging and soaring camera, mercurial and conspicuous special effects, counterfactual scenes, subjective fantasies, and swirling choreography on a grand scale.”
– Richard Brody, The New Yorker
The call of the wild
Scorsese, aided by Terence Winter’s immense script (at 179 minutes, it does at times feel overlong), creates an irreverent yet vibrant work. Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker also deserves accolades for her inventiveness, for Wolf bays and bounds with ingenuity and grace during even some of the most bad-mannered moments.
Similarly, there are sequences, such as an early scene with DiCaprio and his coke-addled mentor, Mark Hanna (a shockingly shipshape Matthew McConaughey) and several with Jonah Hill that feel improvised and instinctive, even echoing the ad-lib Joe Pesci “what’s so funny about me?” bit from Goodfellas.
And perhaps this implication shows a forgivable flaw in Wolf ‘s work out: that Marty is self-referencing his similarly paced and provocative Goodfellas. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s ripping himself off (this film has it’s own incendiary designs), but he’s certainly riffing on his previous output, like any other artist would.
“Though Raging Bull must still go down as Martin Scorsese’s greatest achievement, The Wolf of Wall Street makes the race for No. 2 a lot more interesting. It is his first since Goodfellas to break through that mystical barrier that separates ‘Oh, yes, that was excellent’ from ‘Wow, that was amazing.’”
– Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
A wolf at the door
That it’s a film teeming with nudity, f-bombs, endless drugs, and populated wholly by reprobates is why the old-fashioned and uptight Philistines won’t like it. So plentiful is the foul language that colors the film that Wolf holds the distinction of using the word “fuck” somewhere between 511 and 569 times, making it, as of this writing, the film with the most fucks in a mainstream film (not including documentaries or pornography).
Most of these feisty f-bombs, it must be said, are delivered radiantly by Rob Reiner, another casting coup as DiCaprio’s dad (and while we’re here, apart from Reiner, two other prominent directors appear in small roles in the film: Jon Favreau and Spike Jonze).
Belfort, Azoff (a character loosely based on “pump and dump” schemer Danny Porush), and the sharks they swim with lack a moral compass or any kind of scruple, and all the while the narrative is contrarily good-natured, and comical.
The raconteur’s citing this distasteful tale do so with glib irony. They’re self-serving low-lifes whose antics at frequent times are hilarious, yes, but damning and abject. These are ridiculous and grotesque criminals, and witnessing their undoing is ghoulishly delightful schadenfreude. All told, The Wolf of Wall Street is an elated and unruly howl from a refreshed American master.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.