The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

So big money, huh? Yeah, it scares the hell out of me mostly because the only time we ever hear about Wall Street and huge international corporations is when they're getting taken down for all sorts of tax frauds, insider trading and stock manipulation. How can the rich get richer basically. Like politics, right?!? Yeah, the world's a scary place. Nowhere is that more evident than in director Martin Scorsese's latest, 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street.

Arriving on Wall Street in 1987, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young, ambitious and even naive stock broker looking to make a career for himself. He also has horrific timing. Within months of becoming a full-time broker, Jordan is out of work as quick as he had it, a result of Black Monday. Looking for work, Jordan ends up working in a New Jersey boiler room selling penny stocks. The money is there, his aggressive selling style winning over customer after customer. It's not enough though. Jordan wants more. He needs more. He gets it his own way, starting his own start-up scam selling stocks with the very official sounding name, Stratton Oakmont, and a new right-hand man, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), goes to work. He gets an office, gets some salesmen, teaches them the selling techniques, and it works....a lot. Money starts flowing in, ridiculous amounts of money, and Jordan's empire grows. Millions of dollars, a luxurious, self-indulgent life of sex, drugs, and everything in between, everything is attainable. Has Jordan's company gotten too big though?

You know what's the most terrifying thing to take away from this movie? It happened. This all happened. Read about the real-life Jordan Belfort HERE and know that as ridiculously over the top, as self-indulgent, as ludicrous as the movie is, IT HAPPENED. Belfort's story also served as the inspiration for 2000's Boiler Room. 'Wolf' doesn't delve in too much to the gory financial details, trying to introduce what's going on and moving on to the life and empire Belfort has created for himself. Not surprisingly, it has picked up some Oscar buzz, garnering nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, picking up five overall. It's a loaded Academy Awards so it will definitely be interesting to see what comes of it all.

What's the end result here? A terrifying, truly funny, unsettling, amazingly entertaining story. Scorsese's style is there at all times. DiCaprio's narration -- mostly heard over the action, at times seen as Jordan addresses the camera -- is almost non-stop, keeping things going, explaining all the new developments that the ever-crooked Stratton Oakmont is up to. 'Wolf' clocks in at a robust 179 minutes (that's almost 3 full hours for you non-math fans like me), the script from Terence Winter covering a ton of ground and a lot of years, but it never feels rushed. If you didn't know this was real, you'd think it was a drugged-up fantasy, a dream-like trip into a bizarre nightmare. There isn't one linear story, no one plot, just an ever-building doomsday scenario we all know is coming. The first hour is the rise to power, the second the stay at the top, and the third the inevitable and crushing downfall. Replacing mobsters with Wall Street brokers, 'Wolf' did remind me of Scorsese's Goodfellas at times in terms of that rise to power story arc.

As the appointed Wolf of Wall Street (earning the nickname 'Wolfie'), DiCaprio picked up another Best Actor nomination, his third Best actor and fourth overall (he remains winless), for his part here. It's a part that is hard to look away from. It is a trainwreck, and we're just waiting for the train to wreck. DiCaprio's performance is a gem as we watch Jordan's rise to power and inevitable fall from grace. He learns the ins-and-outs of the stock market from a veteran broker, John Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, a truly scene-stealing part, and he's on-screen about 10 minutes, maybe), and from there, Jordan is on his way. It's ego. It's pride. It's vanity. It is having everything the world can offer. His life becomes a cliche of the rich and famous as he visits prostitutes on a regular basis, does ridiculous amounts of drugs, becomes addicted to quaaludes, and commits himself to a life he loves and embraces, a life that will lead to his doom. From the narration to the decadence, DiCaprio brings this scumbag to life. It's not a likable character. Jordan is a deplorable individual, but he's epically, grandly good at his profession. Will DiCaprio win the Oscar? I don't know considering the opponents -- Dern, McConaughey, Bale, Ejiofor -- but he more than deserves that nomination. 

DiCaprio isn't alone though, 'Wolf' featuring an impressive list of performances. Some are like McConaughey, quick, effective and lasting in terms of influence, while others figure more prominently, like Jonah Hill's Best Supporting Actor nominated part as Donnie. It's hard to put this character into words, a motor-mouth, a troublemaker, a loyal right-hand man, and just as greedy as Jordan, especially when the money starts to pile up (quite literally). Another really strong part goes to relative unknown (but not for too much longer) Margot Robbie as Naomi, Jordan's second wife, a former model and the definition of a trophy wife....who becomes much more. Adding to the scene-stealing list (how many such parts can a movie have?) is Rob Reiner as Jordan's Dad, helping his son with the business but quite aware where his son is heading. The link for these three parts -- and really the entire cast -- is the chemistry. As ridiculously goofy and off the wall as the story can be at times, it's at least somewhat grounded because of the chemistry, the believable qualities.

Also look for Kyle Chandler as Denham, the FBI agent leading the case against Jordan, Jon Favreau as Riskin, the security officer trying to help Jordan around the S.E.C. sanctions, Jean Dujardin as Saurel, the helpful Swiss banker, and Jon Bernthal, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, and Henry Zebrowski as Jordan's crew of "vice presidents" who become his inner circle. Even look for actor/director Spike Jonze in a small, effective part.

I have a concept of Best Picture nominations as being almost exclusively dramatic. This year's nominations certainly back up that assumption, from 12 Years a Slave to Captain Phillips, Nebraska to Dallas Buyers Club (American Hustle obviously had some laughs too). So what to take away from 'Wolf'? It is funny, ridiculously funny. This isn't physical humor laughs. These are scenes so far out of the ordinary that their unique qualities are funny just because. These are scenes played straight that produce countless laughs. My personal favorite? Jordan and Donnie overdo it on some old quaaludes (Lemmon 714) thinking they've lost their potency. Well...they didn't. The extended scene as both try to overcome some heavy duty effects are hilarious. I was crying. 'Wolf' has plenty of these moments, from analyzing a contract of a little person who agrees to be used as a throwing dart to McConaughey's Hannah's monologue about how to truly become a successful stock broker. It's incredibly dark humor, often uncomfortable, but these were genuine laughs.

Is there a complaint here? Yeah, the length of the movie. It never drags but the almost three-hour movie.....yeah, it felt as I was walking out that I'd been there three or four days. I don't know what you cut, but just be known it's a long movie. Mostly though, it's really good. It's the general negative outlook on, well, everything. Lost in the shuffle of the drama and debauchery is such a negative tone and outlook on life. Everyone is out for themselves, and no one really cares who gets caught in the wake. A trip of a movie full of drug use, nudity (some scenes far more graphic than others), truly interesting characters, lots of illegal stock and Wall Street activity, style to burn, and just a treat to watch. Scorsese does it again. I can't wait to see what, if any, awards it takes home at next month's Oscars.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): *** 1/2 /****


  1. Agree with you about the length. I also think the movie could have been a bit clearer on what Belfort was doing wrong and why. I imagine many viewers coming away from Wolf wondering why the FBI was hassling him. Still it was a solid flick and DiCaprio really good.

  2. Agreed, DiCaprio was excellent. I almost thought it was a little condescending to completely gloss over what Jordan was doing. That one voiceover even says something to the equivalent of "But you don't care about that..." Um, no, I'd like some more explanation.