Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Let the good times roll

When movie executives are getting pitched an idea, they love to hear things dumbed down into examples from past successes. 'It's Jaws in outer space' 'Psycho in Cleveland' 'Toy Story with teddy bears.' A lot of times these little quips are way off the mark when the final pictures comes out, but hey, they help get the movie off the ground. 
To describe Martin Scorsese's new film as 'Goodfellas on Wall Street' however is a pretty damn good comparison. 

The Wolf of Wall Street plays like a runaway freight train. One of the first pieces of dialogue in the film is Leonardo DiCaprio's character proclaiming 'I love drugs.' This occurs right around the time you see him speeding down the highway in his expensive sports car, high on cocaine, receiving fellatio from his supermodel wife complaining that the amount of money he made last year pissed him off because it was just shy of a million dollars a week. 
If this sounds like an over the top, excessive or offensive way to start a movie, then The Wolf of Wall Street is not for you, as this is one of the tamer scenes in the film. 

The film is based on the memoir of Jordan Belfort, who spend over ten years on Wall Street making ungodly amounts of money, doing ungodly amounts of drugs and participating in ungodly amounts of debauchery with his gang of filthy rich cohorts. 
And that's about it really. Things fall apart for him eventually and when the hurricane he's danced in the eye of for so long finally dissipates, the debris he finds himself standing among afterwards is not unlike the kind Henry Hill from Goodfellas finds himself among at the end of that movie. But for the most part, Belfort's memoir, and Scorsese's film, being a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, is that swirling hurricane of excess and debauchery from beginning to end. 

Although none of the people I personally know who have seen the film disliked it, Wolf has a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Which is pretty low for a Scorsese film. And the thing that most of the critics who gave the film poor reviews complained about was that the level of excess was just too much. That it was relentless and didn't leave enough space for a story. 
I couldn't disagree more. The excess and debauchery in this film is the story. That's the tale they're telling. Read the book. That's all this guy's life was for over a full decade. Drugs, sex and extravagance. There is a plot, there is a three act structure, you just have to navigate your way through some of the prostitutes and little people being shot from cannons and mountains of cocaine to find your way to it.

Another complaint the film has received is that it glorifies the lifestyles it portrays. And I guess that depends on who's watching the film. There are consequences for some of the characters in the film for breaking the law, but there really aren't any for the debauchery the characters take part in. No one dies of a drug overdose. No one's life is ruined as a result of adultery. No one walks by a street mission and feels bad about the money they've wasted on giant yachts and $26,000 dinners when there are so many who can't even afford a decent meal. And if you're looking for a film where the characters go through a sappy transformation and pull 180 degrees on their excessive and selfish lifestyles, you won't find it here. Again, that's just not the story they're telling. 

The pairing of DiCaprio and Scorsese these past eleven years has been one of the most exciting in film history. Probably the most exciting and consistently impressive director/actor pairing since Scorsese and DeNiro. And while Scorsese himself is one of the best, if not the best living director, that pairing is a two sided coin. DiCaprio is a hugely talented actor who has chosen his projects wisely and gotten himself to a perch in his career where he has the pick of the litter as far as which director's to work with. Just in the past few years DiCaprio's worked with Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg. That's a hell of a CV. And well deserved. I would have to say, perhaps controversially, that Wolf of Wall Street is one of Leo's best performances. I mean his character in this film runs at a ten for about 80% of his screen time. A screaming, dancing, screwing, snorting, frothing red eyed bull zeroed in on that red cape he'll never be able to catch. 
The supporting cast is also impressive.
Jonah Hill has officially become a major talent in dramatic cinema. Considering his other big role this year was in the equally over the top (but in a much different way) comedy ensemble This Is The End, Hill is a surprisingly versatile actor who is now on my radar of people who I can't wait to see in their next role. 
Rob Reiner also puts in his best performance as DiCaprio's father. A raging bear of a man known as 'Mad Max' thanks to his angry outbursts. 

You don't often see movies come out these days that run a full three hours in length. Certainly, as our collective lives get busier and busier and our attention spans shrink, making your film run three precious hours is a bit of a gamble. I personally have never been one for sitting in a theatre for that long. Despite the amount of movies I see a year and the amount of man hours I've spent sitting in the dark, I've never gotten to a place where I don't start to get fidgety and uncomfortable after about the hour and forty minute mark. But Wolf, and this is maybe the best compliment I can give it, never felt as long as it was. The movie moves at such a relentless pace, and is so full of outrageous goings-on, that it truly felt like a film half its length.

When Wolf of Wall Street finally wraps up and the credits begin to roll, you truly feel like you've been put through the ringer. Scorsese orchestrates everything that happens in such a masterful and controlled way, that although you don't realize it when it's happening, during the decompression period following the film, you come to understand that your senses have been attacked from all sides. You walk out of the theatre with your head swirling a little bit, as if you're coming down off a drug. Or, perhaps, as if Scorsese  was trying to give you a little three hour taste of what the life of Jordan Belfort felt like all those years on Wall Street. And maybe that's what the critics who derided the film were reacting against, they got that taste of excess and they didn't like it. Now how could a film with that kind of power be called anything less than masterful. 

Verdict: Hard edged, over the top,  exciting, intense. Amazing performances and gritty dialogue. Beautifully shot with no shortage of swirling camera work and very Scorsese-esque long, unbroken takes. The Wolf of Wall Street is a joy ride through deviance and excess and rings true like vintage Scorsese. One of the best movies of the year. 

Rating: *****


  1. I'm going to hold up my hand here and declare, proudly, that I hated this movie. Sitting in the theater for three hours watching it I left angry. I left enraged. I came out and told everyone that looked me directly in the eye what I thought of this movie.

    Was it beautifully shot? Yes, because it's a Martin S. film. Did the actors play their parts well? Of course, because they are talented. Do I think DiCaprio deserves an Oscar for this movie? No, I don't. I'd rather see him receive a Post-Humus one five years after his death then win for this.

    I found the characters that were portrayed completely one-sided. What you see it really what you get out of them. There was no depth. The only depth that I saw came out of Rob Reiner as Mad Max and he only played a bit part!

    This movie does glorify the "American High Flying Lifestyle" and glamorizes the horrible things that are/were done by Wallstreet jerks. But, it's a memoir by a guy who didn't not repent at all for what he did. So, for that they nailed the subject material.

    The plot just seemed like one drug escapade after another with a plot loosely thrown in. I knew what I was getting into when I stepped into the theater to see the movie, but I completed underestimated how bad I would find it. And I'm a person that really doesn't dislike movies - I'll watch anything and most likely find something to enjoy in it.

    I just couldn't find anything to enjoy in Wolf of Wallstreet enough to offset my distaste of it.

    Another note: This was a great breakdown/review of the film.

  2. I love your reaction to this movie! I don't think anyone sets out to make a movie like this without the intention of polarizing the audience. I completely love when movies ignite strong emotions in people, whatever that emotion may be. It's why I love them. It's why I spend as much time with them as I do. It's why I'm in film school. If I made a film that enraged someone, even if that wasn't the intention, I would feel very proud of myself. In your case, your anger was a reaction to your disappointment in the shallow, one dimensional nature of the film and, I assume, in Scorsese as a filmmaker for dropping the ball so dramatically. But I'm not 100% convinced that isn't what he set out to do to some viewers. Either way, thanks for your thoughts and for reading the blog.

  3. You are very right - myself as a Filmmaker strives for creating reactions out of my audience. If they love it, great! They hate it? Even better because I atleast made them feel something. And Martin S. totally nailed that for me. I felt strongly enough about the movie that I am still talking about it later.

    I hope that it was his intention to have such a polarization of his audience but the amount of articles he has defended the movie from people's reactions like this makes me think otherwise. If you had intended to polarize your audience, wouldn't you be open and frank about it? Because I would.

  4. Maybe, yeah. Then again, he may be Marty S. but he isn’t David O. Selznick. He still has studio suits to answer to and even if he was intending to polarize the audience, he can’t very well go on a press tour and say things like ‘yeah go ahead and hate it, I want you to’ without the studio heads saying ‘what the fuck are you doing Marty? We want people to actually go and see this thing.’ I've seen interviews with him and Leo were they were saying they wanted to push the envelope with it. No one goes about pushing an envelope without expecting backlash.

  5. From a film making perspective there is little to criticize about Wolf of Wall Street, the performances were great and I especially agree about Jonah Hill. The movie was intense and hard edged as you said but it lacked any real human connection; I never cared about the characters and for me if I am not invested in the characters then the rest of the story is just filler. It is a story that doesn't need to be told because nothing is gained by it, if I wanted to see sex for the sake of sex I would watch porn.


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