Leonardo DiCaprio is at his best in The Wolf of Wall Street, but Martin Scorsese’s film has not held up as well as you remember.
For those that scoffed at the preview, rest assured that I am not about to tear this film to shreds, just look at the rating I gave 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. However, I must ask that you hear me out when I say this film adaptation of the 2007 memoir of the same name by former stockbroker and financial criminal Jordan Belfort may not be the masterpiece you remember it as.
Let me take you back to when I was but a freshman in college, home for the Christmas holiday, and had just seen legendary director Martin Scorsese’s latest film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I was completely shellshocked, my mind instantly hailed The Wolf of Wall Street as the greatest thing I had ever seen in a cinema. I was so enamored by the film that I purchased and read Belfort’s memoir not long after. Part of me said “Yeah, this man is not someone meant to be admired but I cannot help myself.” It also did not help that at the time, I was a fish out of water like Jordan Belfort at the start of the film, looking to make something of myself at this new place.
As time passed, I realized that I, like many, had taken the wrong message from this epically insane black comedy. With all due respect, Jordan Belfort as depicted here is not a good person and what he did was utterly despicable. Many, including myself, have admired the fictional version of Belfort’s lifestyle and rags to riches tale without considering the cost to others. Part of me saw it as the character and person just doing what he needed to survive in the ruthless place that is Wall Street. After a rewatch on home video with the additional context of Belfort’s memoir, the protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street became exactly the type of person that I never hope to become. I am honestly embarrassed that I found myself drawn into this character, but after rewatching this film for the purpose of this review, I realized that it may not have been entirely the fault of my young adult mind. Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter did not exactly make sure that audiences fully took away how wrong the actions of their depiction of Belfort were.
The Wolf of Wall Street focuses on Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his career as a stockbroker in New York City. Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, engaged in rampant corruption and fraud on Wall Street. The film chronicles his rise from young upstart stockbroker to a financial criminal that lives an incredibly lavish lifestyle filled with sex and drugs.
Martin Scorsese’s direction still holds up. The Wolf of Wall Street is oozing with visual style and flair, which ideally captures the excessiveness of Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle. It is a film that is quite the watch and no matter how wild things get, your eyes stay on the screen. Scorsese directs the film like a sort of mad rush, throwing increasingly more explicit things at you as Belfort continues to rise and that continues into his fall. Scorsese’s depiction of Belfort’s downfall is effective, and yet, you might still find yourself rooting for him, because you have spent much more time focused on him and his lifestyle rather than the impact of his actions.
Terrence Winter has written a solid script, as usual, but The Wolf of Wall Street does have a key issue that I cannot look past. While the narrative does not outright paint the actions of Belfort in a positive light, it also does not condemn them. DiCaprio’s character may get his comeuppance, but that has not stopped people from missing the point of the story entirely and admiring Belfort. This morally ambiguous balancing act harms the film in the end, and makes it come off as something that would not have gotten made without the real-life Jordan Belfort’s approval. For comparison: A film like Babylon does a tremendous job of acting as a love letter to the art of cinema while simultaneously ripping into Hollywood and the industry. Damien Chazelle makes his feelings on both noticeably clear. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Winter and Scorsese may not endorse the actions of the protagonist, but it is not the hilarious comedy takedown of him that it appears to be either.
I love the way Winter has written the characters, and each of them depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street, even the side characters, have a surprising amount of depth. Who would have thought Matthew McConaughey’s stockbroker Mark Hanna would be so memorable? The role is small, but it is so pivotal to the character of Jordan and expertly crafted by Winter and McConaughey. Having a ton of well-written characters is what makes Winter’s take on Belfort’s journey so interesting, more than any amount of debauchery and cursing ever could. It also does not hurt that every actor involved is giving their best and selling every beat of the story.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street should have won him his first Academy Award for Best Actor. I did not think that at the time, but he just completely threw himself into the role of Jordan Belfort. His charisma is on full display, and he seems to be adding a more distinctive touch to his portrayal rather than being an exact replica of Belfort. Certain afflictions seem like DiCaprio letting his inner playboy and man child out to play, which audiences have rarely seen from him on screen.
This is an actor that usually finds the lane for his characters and sticks to it. Not saying that is a terrible thing, Leo is one of the greats, but seeing him be more of himself makes this performance better. He also helps sell the downfall of Jordan with his performance more than the script does. DiCaprio’s facial expressions and tone more closely reflect a man that is about to lose everything while the dialogue and the protagonist’s narration continues to ride the line of “maybe he will get out of this one.”
Speaking of outstanding performances and characters, I would be an absolute fool not to discuss the fantastic Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia, Belfort’s lover, who goes on to become his second wife. Scorsese’s direction and the script paint Naomi as the human equivalent of a unicorn, which may have been a tough sell for anyone else, but not Robbie. She stands toe-to-toe with Leonardo freaking DiCaprio and gives a brilliant performance. Margot Robbie commands your attention with her beauty, attitude, and quite the Brooklyn accent. Naomi is very much the dream girl, but Robbie makes sure you know that she is just as cutthroat as Jordan Belfort from their first dinner. In all honesty, this character could convince me to do everything for her in the same way that she compels Belfort, even though deep down I would know she is just looking out for herself (which I cannot blame her for). That is how powerful Margot Robbie is in role and I love that we get to see multiple sides of Naomi as the narrative moves along as well.
You also have Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Jordan Belfort’s neighbor and right-hand man at Stratton Oakmont. Hill provides a ton of the films best comedic moments and honestly can also be a more frustrating character than Jordan. Donnie is funny, but he is also ridiculously stupid, and Winter’s script never lets the audience forget that. Azoff is another character in this ensemble that plays their role in Jordan Belfort’s rise and fall perfectly while never outstaying their welcome.
That is a testament not only to the performances of the actors, who do splendid work while never attempting to upstage DiCaprio, but also to Winter’s writing, as he crafts characters that serve their purpose in the narrative and nothing more. Donnie may be frustrating and come close to being annoying, but then Winter and Hill will shift his character to handle a dramatic moment or two just before he becomes too much. That type of careful character work and writing is something you do not find every day. They are part of what helps The Wolf of Wall Street overcome its more questionable aspects to remain a quality film.
There is a lot of good chaotic comedy here as well, particularly from Hill as previously mentioned. Even Leonardo DiCaprio gets to flex his comedic chops during some of Jordan Belfort’s highly ridiculous moments. The quaalude sequence in The Wolf of Wall Street is a standout, as it highlights Leo at his most hilarious and slightly cringeworthy. Not everything is as funny as it used to be back in 2013, obviously, including one key aspect of Donnie’s character, but there are still laughs to be had.
Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort might be a little too morally ambiguous for my taste when it comes to the actions of its protagonist. There is no denying that The Wolf of Wall Street is well made with sensational performances from its ensemble cast, a fast paced effective script, and good comedy.