At the time of this writing, I had seen Scorsese’s new film, “The Wolf of Wall Street” around two weeks ago. In that same day, I watched “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “American Hustle”. It was quite the day, especially considering I was still processing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” from the day before. Even now, I sit here, wondering whether my inability to ponder and thematically disassemble “Wolf” is based off my other film choices during that time, or whether my inadequacy is due to the content of “Wolf”. I hate to bring external factors into a film, as this is typically never the intent of the filmmaker, but at this point, I’m not really sure what to think.
“Wolf” tells the story of real-life Wall Street thug Jordan Belfort. The screenplay is taken—sometimes word for word—from Belfort’s memoirs. In fact, after reading multiple accounts of Belfort’s life, I was rather stunned to learn that most of the content in “Wolf” is sharply accurate to Belfort’s life; the FBI investigation confirmed it! I write this review, assuming you have seen “Wolf”.
I am a huge fan of Martin Scorsese, and on some level, possibly an even bigger Leonardo DiCaprio fanboy. “Wolf” follows a similar narrative to the classic mobster film “Goodfellas”. Yes, Belfort does appear to be a mobster of sorts, in attitude at least. Everything he wants is given to him (ala Henry Hill, perhaps). An early trailer for “Wolf” even plasters the word “MORE” on-screen repeatedly. Belfort lives a life of excess. It isn’t enough to scam money from some poor schmuck who doesn’t know how to spend it. Immediately after the phone call, Belfort wants laughs and admiration from his peers, and those underneath him, so he makes multiple sexual gestures to show off his macho exterior. The man might possess and use more cocaine than Tony Montana from “Scarface”. The big parties that Belfort is constantly the star of seems somewhat eerily reminiscent of his role as Gatsby. An interesting year for DiCaprio, no doubt.
“Wolf” is very explicit, even sometimes riding the border of pornographic at times. Hundreds of topless women flock around Belfort and his business associates. He cares little for commitment. He shows such little endearment for his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), that he has the audacity to flirt with another woman, Naomi (Margot Robbie), right in front of her. He ends up divorced and married to Naomi. There are no boundaries for Belfort. He always gets what he wants. Tossing midgets at a target isn’t out of the question. Riding Belfort’s coattails is close friend, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Hill’s teeth have never been quite as noticeable as they are in “Wolf”. He’s snide and disgusting.
Jordan Belfort wasn’t always like this, Scorsese tells us. He started out as a regular salesman on the floor. By day one, he was finished taking crap from a nearby desk worker and gets invited to eat lunch with Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Granted, McConaughey doesn’t have much screen time, but as “Wolf” progresses, it becomes very obvious where Belfort learned the ropes from. Hanna declares, “how the f*ck else do you do this job? Cocaine and hookers, man,” and he snorts a line. In plain sight. It’s not a big deal. It’s necessary. Belfort seemed somewhat approachable in his early days, but within a few minutes of screen-time with Hanna, he becomes a foul-mouthed, ruthless businessman. He begins taking not just little steps, but gigantic leaps towards his moral decline.
Many have criticized “Wolf” for how it so nonchalantly approaches what happens on-screen. It is extremely well-written, and overall, a very funny movie (I’m thinking of a particular scene where Belfort and Donnie take a ton of ‘expired’ Lumens, and Belfort tries to drive somewhere). The TV ads and trailers for the film play it off as a fun time in the theaters. I’ve had to have spent many hours mulling over what I truly think about “Wolf” though. It’s not a movie for everyone, and truthfully, anyone who does see it, needs to mentally prepare themselves. Belfort’s life has never been about consequence. He’s never had to worry about the cause and effect of his choices. His greed and power overwhelm his ability to feel empathy for others. Yet, the content on-screen, while definitely offensive, is very funny material. We wonder how we can find laughter in such a wasteland of depravity. What does this say about us as an audience? Actually, what is Scorsese saying about us as an audience?
The old rumor goes that “Wolf” was originally cut at four hours. He works closely with editor Thelma Colbert Schoonmaker (three-time Oscar winner), and has been since “Raging Bull”. While watching “Wolf”, you may be wondering why you are watching what seems to be dozens of deleted scenes. This film feels like an extended cut, and the bit of flak received for this is likely misplaced. While I don’t stand for the crude language and behavior that Belfort revels in, Scorsese is after something much more than entertainment with “Wolf”. This is a character study. This is why fans of “Goodfellas” should feel quite at home here. The decline of mobster Henry Hill isn’t so different from Jordan Belfort. By the end of “Wolf”, Belfort likely hasn’t learned much at all. He’s for the most part, the same old coke-snorting fiend he’s been for the last 15 years of his life. Much like Hill’s last words, where he complains about the spaghetti he eats with ketchup, Jordan Belfort still tries to teach his selling technique with a normal ballpoint pen.
Belfort and his friends are scum. But Scorsese never praises them for their actions. The one gaping problem I had with “Wolf” however, is the lack of proper punishment and satisfaction from said punishment. We learn that Donnie and the other guys all go to prison, and Belfort as well, but nothing really drives home the severity of their actions. Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) plays Agent Patrick Denham. This is a man who cannot be bought off like the rest of them. He eventually gets his man, Belfort, behind bars. But, Belfort has done so much damage. You remember the scene where Belfort viciously attacks Naomi and tries to drive away with their daughter. What about the repercussions and emotional devastation that his ex-wife must have experienced from the attention he refused to show her? Most notable are the hundreds of thousands of customers who bought into Belfort’s penny stock scheme that his business Stratton Oakmont was formed after. These are regular people who’s financial lives and futures were ruined because of the lies of stock market fraud that Belfort’s company was founded upon.
“Wolf” has reportedly set the record for most F bombs in a movie, featuring 506 of them.
Many stories are told in “Wolf”, but in the end, despite our many hours spent with Belfort, we don’t feel attached in any way. It is indeed a relief to part ways with his selfish, over-the-top lifestyle, and return our own, more familiar, likely simple one. Unfortunately, at no point do we ever feel justice is properly done to this man, and we deeply regret that. At least the last three hours of our lives felt deep sorrow for that.
Belfort realizes he is caught, and enough is enough. After some question by Agent Denham about his yacht, Belfort replies, “when you’re sailing a boat built for a Bond villain, you’ve got to play the part.” Oh, how this could not be any more truer of a statement.
Lastly, I would like to add that David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” just might be film of the year. I wanted to wait to see “Wolf”, but outside of “Gravity”, or “12 Years a Slave”, there is little competition at this point.