Released in 2013, Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the biopic about a real life conman who scammed investors out of millions of dollars, eventually getting caught and landing in prison (sort of). In the characteristically Scorsese-style of presentation, the film attempts to not only tell the story of Jordan Belfort, but to tell it with sympathy and brutal honesty. And I must say, I’m not a fan of this approach, at least not for this one.
What I mean by Scorsese-style can be seen in his previous crime-dramas. When directing these types of movies, Scorsese usually tells it like it is, portraying criminals who are not evil and devoid of humanity, but men who are either ensnared by the underworld or had no other choice. His protagonists are what one may call the charming criminal. The audience understands why the protagonist is doing what he’s doing, and they may even root for him, because he’s usually going up against the world and/or The Man. His downfall is usually a result of the film’s events catching up with him, and for a brief moment he is shown as the lowly lawbreaker that he is, but the film will more than likely end by returning to the protagonist’s main appeal; he’s sly, he’s quick-thinking, and he’ll be back.
The ending of The Wolf of Wall Street (WoWS) does this, and I found it less amusing than I did in Goodfellas. This review will try to sort out why.
As the lead role, DiCaprio does a great job depicting his character. He is enthusiastic, over-the-top, and is convincing in all of his emotions. The hyperactive nature of the character has so far been unseen in any of DiCaprio’s other roles, and so the performance was well-done and the film’s lifeline.
I will also give credit to the film’s sense of humour. The majority of today’s comedies revolve around a group of people standing around insulting/being sarcastic to one another. Hollywood needs to stop with that. Thankfully, the producers and screenwriters here remember that good comedy is based on situation, not just dialogue, and WoWS had plenty of moments that were funny.
The story of the film is based on the book of the same name, an autobiography by the real Jordan Belfort. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how faithful the film is, but I can say the movie presents a highly entertaining story. I don’t think there was a single scene that was boring, and that’s very difficult to do, now that I think about it. In every scene, something important was happening to or between the characters, and all of it was interesting, probably because it was based on real life. Audiences got a glimpse into the world of white collar fraud, smuggling, extravagance, and high-stakes finance, things that the average person only hears or reads about. It is unique and bold in its presentation, and the honesty is what lends this film credibility on top of that appeal.
All throughout the film I felt something breathing down my neck, watching alongside with me. I noticed it first when I saw DiCaprio blowing cocaine into a hooker’s anus, and the feeling grew larger and larger as the movie cut more frequently into scenes of debauchery and sex. I realized what the name of the thing was, lingering over my viewing of the film, during Belfort’s bachelor party on the plane, and it was Sleaziness.
I get that the film is trying to make a point. It’s trying to show what greed can do to a person, and by film’s end Belfort is a drug addict who rapes and assaults his wife, but that’s only in the film’s closing moments. Ninety percent of the film glamorizes and makes light of the crazy and insane lifestyle, and it isn’t difficult to imagine that most theatre-goers saw this movie more as an inspiration than a warning. If Scorsese was indeed trying to show the danger of an unrestrained and extravagant lifestyle, he has failed. The movie is too funny to do that. The protagonist is too good-looking, too charming, and gets away with so much that any attempt to justify this film as satire falls flat. And so despite the film having an engaging story, a charismatic performance from the lead actor, and being shot perfectly, it lost something when I realized it was merely a collage of degeneracy and smut. I couldn’t take it seriously anymore, and while it may not sound like much, consider the films that you and I both don’t take seriously: Green Lantern, John Carter, The Godfather: Part III, etc. This is not a good list to be on.
A contributing factor to my experience of WoWS lies in its depiction of women. Okay, I promise you this is as SJW as gamobo will ever get, but you can’t deny the fact that the female characters are basically props for the men to fuck. One exception is Kimmie, an office worker singled out in DiCaprio’s speech near the end, but it feels almost like an afterthought or a half-hearted apology. I wonder why there hasn’t been any uproar from the ultra-feminists over this film. Is it because DiCaprio, the heartthrob from Titanic, is the posterboy for this movie? Or is it because Scorsese is seen as a respectable director who would never be vulgar just for the sake of it? Regardless, there were many things that turned me off from this film. The portrayal of women is merely the most noticeable.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
In the end, I think WoWS sums up 21st century America pretty accurately. Money, pleasure, and attention is all that matters. Never mind the fact that Belfort is, in the end, a criminal who broke the law and deceived a lot of people out of their money; he lived the American Dream and was living it up for a while. This is the only message the film has to say.
The film fails as a condemnation on the lifestyle it portrays, as well as the man behind it. I’m pretty sure the people involved were aware of this, as the real life lawbreaker was even given a cameo. The most damning part about it is the ending where Belfort is serving a comfortable punishment for his crimes, and that’s not far from what happened in real life. He cheated people out of millions of dollars, while people who do marijuana or commit petty theft have served longer sentences and have even been killed.
This is the most disappointing fact of the film: that it fails in both its execution and intention as a movie that holds any moral or virtuous substance. Some of us watch movies only to be entertained, and I get that. It’s lame when anything tries to be preachy and turns into a gospel, but I also think it’s lame when a movie glorifies indulgence, drug use, and skank-filled orgies. It projects an unreal and untenable fantasy that many people (in our world of selfies and Facebook likes) are susceptible to. Be rich, be popular, and you’ll be happy, the movie is saying, but that is a hollow dream, as fake as the people who depend on media for their own self-worth.
In a word, this movie is sleazy. Unfortunately, the combined names of Scorsese and DiCaprio have saved it from falling into rank with other tasteless and second-rate films of the same cut. However, since its initial release year, WoWS has, for the most part, fallen out of memory, and deservedly so.
Make no mistake, this is still an entertaining movie because of its novel presentation of a world few of us have experienced firsthand. Beyond that, this movie is nothing more than a celebration of a con-man, and if that strikes you as appealing, you’ll be treated to a solid movie produced by Hollywood veterans. Lesser than most other ambitious Hollywood flicks, higher up than your average porno, WoWS biggest shortcoming is its contrary nature with respect human decency and dignity, and I am glad that I’m not the only one to have recognized it as such.
This has been a gamobo review.