The Wolf of Wall Street Howls, but Falls on Deaf Ears

I’ll admit, as soon as I heard people claim that The Wolf of Wall Street was the next Goodfellas, my expectations went through the roof. In my mind, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a perfect movie that sits alongside Casablanca and The Godfather as a god in my movie pantheon.  Because Martin Scorsese directed Wolf as well, I bought into the hype and walked into the theater thinking that my pantheon could soon be welcoming a new member.

Naturally I was disappointed to find that Wolf is far from a perfect movie.  Don’t get me wrong: It is exceptionally well made and the quality of filmmaking it demonstrates deserves admiration and imitation. Crucially, however, it lacks an emotional through-line and a human perspective that could have elevated it to greatness.

The film, based on the eponymous autobiography, unfolds though the eyes of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ambitious young man with dreams of striking it rich on Wall Street in the 1980s.  After his boss Mark Hanna (played expertly by Matthew McConaughey) mentors him in the dark art of stock trading, Jordan strides into his first day as a licensed stockbroker ready to make the world his oyster.

One problem: that day was October 19, 1987, “Black Monday,” a day when the market lost 500 points and Belfort’s firm when bankrupt. Forced to start from scratch, he finds a job selling penny stocks to pensioners, and suddenly everything clicks into place. Belfort’s uncanny skill at persuasion, combined with a legally dubious but highly profitable financial loophole, enables him to strike it rich. Soon he has a film of his own, where he takes glorified street hustlers and molds them into master salespeople.

As his operation grows into an empire, Belfort, along with his partner and best friend Donnie Azoff (the imperious Jonah Hill), delve into a world of sex, drugs, and financial excess. The distinction between working and partying evaporates as Belfort and his cronies snort lines, have sex with prostitutes, and close shady business deals literally at the same time. He also trades his pretty but plain first wife for the beautiful and seductive Naomi (in a breakout role by Australian actress Margot Robbie). Eventually, as you might expect, it all comes crashing down around him, but not after an all out spending spree and debauchery of epic proportions.

The film’s acting, directing, and cinematography add up to a stunning achievement. The Wolf of Wall Street showcases some spectacular acting, especially Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the lead role. He’s captivating as the charismatic, unhinged, deranged, and somehow composed Belfort. His physical transformation in the now-famous “Lemon” scene is like nothing you’ve ever seen: he somehow combines the physicality of Jim Carrey, the intensity of Orson Welles, and the charm of, well, Leonardo DiCaprio into a breathtaking display of bravado and vulnerability. The movie also has an excellent supporting cast anchored by Jonah Hill, who gives a compelling, albeit over-the-top, performance as Belfort’s enabler in everything seedy and self-destructive.

Scorsese deserves commendation as well for his masterful orchestration of a wide variety of different types of scenes and performances. He hangs back during intimate scenes between two or three characters, letting the actors’ work come to the fore, but then kicks into overdrive during the complicated set pieces involving hundreds of extras engaged in “adult” high jinks, making cinematic order out of utter mayhem. In many ways, the grandeur of the spectacle is a fitting tribute to the realities of the irresponsible but impressive way that Belfort and his cohorts throw their money around. In addition, Wolf’s writing is riotously funny, keeping the pace brisk and belying the movie’s three-hour running time.

While watching the movie I had a grand ole’ time and definitely got more than my money’s worth. But later that night when I started to process what I had just seen, my mind drew a blank. Aside from putting the truth of Belfort’s life on screen, Wolf doesn’t have much of a point. Amidst the hilarity and spectacle, it fails to find an emotional center that would have given the film a sense of weight and significance. It shows the “what” and “how” of Belfort’s rise and fall, but utterly neglects why he did what he did and, crucially, why we should care.

Part of the problem lies with the story’s point of view: the film is told completely from Belfort’s perspective. Almost every film that studies an immoral megalomaniac hoisted on his own petard—Scarface, There Will be Blood, Citizen Kane (the list goes on and on)—contains “normal” characters who are allied with the megalomaniac but provide a foil to his absurdity.  Screenwriter Terrence Winter however chose to abandon this overused trope and get completely inside the mind of his subject, an unconventional and bold artistic choice, though the results are underwhelming.

The film’s tunnel vision, its decision to willfully ignore the moral perversity and absurdity of Belfort’s financial crimes, drug use, and misogyny, comes across as tacit glorification. Although both DiCaprio and Scorsese claim that they intended the film to deplore Belfort’s financial crimes, the film’s myopic perspective distorts the filmmakers’ intentions and celebrates Belfort instead. Unlike Goodfellas, which allows you to understand the mindset of a gangster, Wolf makes no attempt to understand Belfort’s motivations, preventing the movie from achieving greatness.

As an exercise in pure entertainment, Wolf rivals Gravity as the most exciting movie of the past year. While the cinematic punch may give the movie an exhilarating jolt in the theater, however, the lack of an intellectual or emotional punch keeps the movie from being among the year’s best.

Grade: B

Benjamin Neumann is a senior in the History Department.