Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bernthal, Kyle Chandler, Jon Favreau, Ethan Suplee, Rob Reiner, Margot Robbie
Director: Martin Scorsese
Released by Paramount
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
Martin Scorsese has become so adept at this particular type of cinematic storytelling that he can leap up on the bar and dazzle us with swirling camera movements and sure fire editing. He can also retire to the back room of some smoky lounge and just jazz away on the keyboard creating a comforting layer of familiarity. The film starts with a dwarf, a little person being thrown head first at some kind of huge dart board. There is a large crowd of revelers surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio who is leading this spectacle. Just as the dwarf is hurled into the air the film freeze frames. DiCaprio begins a voice over as we go back to the beginning of the story to see how he got there. We’ll pick this part up again later in the picture and then ride it to the end. He’s used this narrative structure before in films like Casino. We get an incredibly adept use of music with song choices that fit the right moment so precisely. It’s a period piece but one that will be recognizable down to the last detail. Costumes, hair styles and mannerisms will all reflect the period. Naturally this will center around the bad guys. Hanging out with the bad guys is always more fun. Scorsese is clearly capable of weaving his story telling in a variety of ways. Hugo and the Dylan documentary No Direction Home are completely different in style. With The Wolf though we’ve got one of the funniest films he has ever made. The actors have lots of room to work here. From that first frame, that very first sequence we know just where we are and we’re damn glad to be there.
This is the story of Jordan Belfort. We see him go from a young stock broker on his first job with a respectable firm to someone who creates his own company becoming so renowned that he gets a feature story written about him in a magazine. That fame will also lead to an FBI investigation. He learns to break all the rules. Money flows like water. He and his merry band of thieves live high on the hog indulging every whim. Marching bands and whores routinely parade through the office at the close of the day. Jordan gives these powerful motivation talks to his team. He fires them up. He seems to genuinely love them and is so proud of their success. Yet he is not at all above bribing an office worker to shave her head just for the momentary thrill of it.
Once the investigation is in full throttle and Jordan’s empire is beginning to implode his wife, The Duchess of Bay Ridge reminds him that he once told her that there are no friends on Wall Street. The implication is that it’s okay to rat your friends out to save your own hide. The trust concept takes a pretty savage beating in the film. At this first day on the job on Wall Street Mathew McConaughey takes him out to lunch and says it’s all bullshit. No one knows where the stocks are going. Jordan agrees but asks wouldn’t it be better if they made their clients some money? Fugazi, fugozi. No one ever gets their money back, it just keeps rolling. Then when he gets into selling penny stocks at the strip mall store he spins a line of BS that is magnificent. The guys all gather around him in awe as he closes the deal based on not one shred of truth. He starts his company Straton Oakmont with the correct supposition that if the firm sounds old and trustworthy, then they are. Which they never will be. There is a very real camaraderie between the guys there. They behave like kids on a pirate ship, swashbucklers one and all. But is there any honor among these thieves? During all the good times and debauchery we hear about one man having a heart attack, another taking his own life and yet they are just flashes in the pan. The parade keeps going, the money keep on rolling and no one looks back. It is very intoxicating. Jonah Hill had been literally pissing on the subpoenas in the office in front of everyone. Jordan and Jonah genuinely look out for each other. Jordan in fact saves his life. But when the big push comes to the big shove we see that there are in fact no friends on Wall Street. Everyone pays the piper.
Scorsese portrays the intimacy between this marauding bunch well. We can see that the actors are so deeply entrenched that the scenes that are improvised flow freely from their characters. Rob Reiner is cast as Jordan’s dad. He is brought in to run security and help keep things straight in the office. He and Jonah Hill really seem to go at it, each one pushing the other. You almost expect Reiner to crack up like Harvey Korman on the Carol Burnet Show. You can seem they both are getting a real kick out of their scenes together. There is a great moment when Reiner is flipping out over the office expenses. Jonah says that they can write off T & A which Reiner jumps on. Hill immediately claims that he said T & E. Scripted or improvised that is a classic bit. Jon Bernthal so well known as the deputy in The Walking Dead is perfectly cast as the pill pushing, weight lifting, Fu-Manchu mustache wearing Brad. Matthew McConaughey makes such an impression with his chest thumping rap and swagger that it’s hard to believe he has basically a cameo at the beginning of the film. Jonah Hill undergoes a transformation with the false teeth and ridiculous clothing. He’s got great comic timing and does wonderful things to dialogue. DiCaprio fits right into the role continuing to find more depth in his films with Scorsese.
There is a sequence in the later third of the film with DiCaprio and Hill wrecked on Quaaludes. They are so stoned they are reduced to crawling on the floor Added to this is the urgency that DiCaprio has to tell Hill that the phones are bugged but his mouth is so droopy he can not even form words properly. This whole scene is pure slapstick recalling shorts like Charlie Chaplin’s One AM and Laurel and Hardy’s Blotto. In a film so verbally driven the physical comedy stands out like a treat. These guys are like asshole buddies. One of the best song choices is The Jimmy Castor Bunch’s Latin flavored, “Hey Leroy”. Apart from the infectious percussion the film is built on buddies insulting each other, doing the dozens as it was called. “Hey Leroy.” “What?” “Your mama’s calling. She mad, man!” Then the whole band cracks up. It’s a put down but the kind you reserve for a good friend. We hear this song as the camera glides and dips and pans around the office with the Stratton Oakmont team working the phones. Editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker cuts between all manner of hands to phones and swaggering postures. She is amazing, giving rhythm and emotion to just making phone calls. It’s a tour de force bit. The blend of music and sights are edited together with a real master’s touch. You feel this scene as much as see it.
The Wolf of Wall Street cruises through its three hour running time. Martin Scorsese has given us a thoroughly enjoyable film. No one gets hit over the head with any kind of message here. This is grand filmmaking. What stands out more than any of the camera moves or editing with this one is the actors. The casting is spot on. Ethan Suplee from My Name is Earl fits right in as one of the brokers. Jon Favreau as the braggart attorney is on the money, too. There is a very nice balance between the film’s narrative and the number of scenes that function as comedic or acting set pieces. Several times we get to hear a full on motivational speech from DiCapro as Jordan. These are wonderful acting segments but they also serve to set up this kind of stage at the front of the Stratton Oakmont office where their rise to glory and fall from grace are charted. Something important happens there; someone gets up and tells everyone. Even though this is the history of a criminal, the story told is a fun one. There is justice at the end but the ride there and the ridiculous extremes of behavior and wealth on display are what we remember. Sell me this pen!
Video – 2.40:1
Blending High Def and Super 35 MM sources The Wolf of Wall looks gorgeous at every turn. There is a very strong detail on display here and a sharp sleekness to many of the scenes. Whether we are in the bright offices are out on the way too big super yacht brightness is handled very well. Nothing is oversaturated. The darker interiors all read fine. While The Wolf will not go down as the one with the terribly intricate camera moves there are still several sequences here that are a wonder to behold. Scorsese has become so good at this kind of style that the high points no longer pop out. It’s just his way of telling this kind of story.
Audio – English DTS-HD Master, 5.1 Digital in French and Spanish. Subtitles offered in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish
All dialogue and there is a tremendous amount it here sounds fine. Many times the songs on the soundtrack are played loudly. That works very well with the story. We’ve got a blend of early Chicago Blues, eighties pop and sixties gems. The cool part is not so much how great it is to hear that old song again but in how well they fit the scene, both the rhythm and emotional tone of the song. During the wedding there is a live performance by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. She belts out Goldfinger. Make sure you spot them.
Extras – The Wolf Pack featurette is short but good. It lets us know that there was a lot of improvisation on the set. We learn the idea to do the film came from DiCaprio, much like DiNro had a film called Raging Bull he really wanted to make with Scorsese. It’d be welcome to see more depth on the filmmaking but The Wolf speaks quite well for itself.
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Excellent