I had no idea The Wolf of Wall Street was a comedy until it won the Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category at the recent Golden Globes. Leo DiCaprio plus Martin Scorcese usually equal serious, violent, gritty flicks like The Departed or Gangs of New York, but this time, they’ve teamed up to give us one of the funniest movies of the year, an epic black comedy with a bite that goes right down to the bone. Oh, and it’s a supposed true story based on a memoir of the same name.
It’s 1987. Leo plays Jordan Belfort, a handsome, charismatic and ambitious young man with a natural gift for sales. Give him anything and he will sell it. After taking a few life lessons on Wall Street from his boss, played by Matthew McConaughey (in a small but hilarious and memorable role), Belfort grabs a few mates and branches out to start his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which is more or less a scam — but one that will make them loads and loads and loads of money.
The Wolf of Wall Street is without a doubt a polarizing film. It has earned the dubious distinction of the motion picture with the most “F bombs” in cinematic history, topping the list with 569 times (or 3.18 times per minute!). It is also full of debauchery and morally corrupt behaviour, including but not limited to fraud, alcohol abuse, drug-taking, extra-marital relations, mass orgies, beating off in public and tossing midgets around for office amusement. I can understand why a lot of people have been turned off this film and accuse it of glamourising the excess it depicts and painting douchebags like Belfort as heroes while completely ignoring the pain and suffering of his victims. On the other hand, the cast and crew of the film will argue otherwise, saying that it is a cautionary tale about excess. It’s a valid debate, and at the end of the day, it is up to the individual viewer to decide what the message of the movie is — for them.
For me, the underlying message is not a big deal. The Wolf of Wall Street is just a really really funny movie that I enjoyed immensely. The film’s comedic tone is pitch black; seeped in satire. The pace is frenetic and the dialogue is edgy and razor sharp — and more often than not incredibly and unapologetically politically incorrect. I’m sure some critics have already labelled it misogynistic. But importantly, it does not come across as mean-spirited. It’s just a bunch of smug, self-righteous dickheads who think they are smarter than everyone else boasting about their success through excess. They’re certainly not likable but they’re also not so unlikable that you find their antics unfunny. It comes as no surprise why so many people back in the late 80s and early 90s wanted to work for them and be like them.
Much of the credit goes to Scorsese’s masterful direction and the witty screenplay adaptation from Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos). Excess in itself is not funny. Debauchery in itself is not funny. F bombs in themselves are not funny. Doing stupid things after getting drunk and getting high in itself is not funny. That’s why I thought Project X was one of the worst movies ever made, Get Him to the Greek was really bad, and The Hangover was overrated. But put it in the hands of Scorsese and Winter and get talented actors like Leo to act it out, and all of a sudden it becomes freaking hilarious. They key, I think, is that the characters are not in on the jokes. They are dead serious about the stupid things they do and do it with such bravado and conviction — which is why we, the audience, can find the humour in it.
Granted, you probably need to be in the right mood for a lot of the jokes (the scene where the discuss hiring midgets for office amusement is a prime example), though if you are, you might get stomach cramps from laughing so hard. That sequence where Leo and Jonah Hill take these precious banned prescription drugs to get high is, in my opinion, an all-time classic.
Leo won Best Actor — Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is one of the favourites to capture his first Oscar next month. I’m not sure if he will win with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in 12 Years a Slave blowing everyone’s socks off, including mine, but if he does it will be a deserving victory. Leo has had some wonderful performances in the past, though I don’t think anyone ever expected his comedic chops to be this strong. Here he was utterly convincing as the Wolf of Wall Street, a narcissistic smooth talker and salesman, a little naive when he had to be at the beginning, electrifying when giving motivational speeches to excited crowds, and downright pitiful when he hit rock bottom — and he did it all with a stoic straight face. I was particularly impressed with the passion, energy and extent to which he was willing to go to embarrass himself, which is completely at odds with the heartthrob Leo we’ve become accustomed to over the years.
The supporting cast was also excellent. I’ve said many times that I don’t care much for Jonah Hill or Matthew McConaughey, but even I can’t deny that both guys were awesome in this. The rest of Leo’s founding partners in his scam, including The Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal, were also solid, as was Kyle Chandler as the smuggish FBI agent determined to bring the Wolf down. Like everyone else, my eyebrows were raised when the smoking Margot Robbie came on screen as Leo’s future second wife — little did I know she’s yet another Aussie from Neighbours! Anyway, she’s got a great future ahead of her. And I haven’t even mentioned a bunch of other big names, such as Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau and Jean Dujardin.
The Wolf of Wall Street is an acquired taste. At 3 hours it is of course too long, but not by as much as you might think. There’s too much golden material for this to be a 2-hour film, but I think a 15-20 trim could have been beneficial as the film becomes more serious and less funny as it nears its conclusion. There were times when I almost felt like I should dislike the film on principle because of all the nasty people doing nasty things in it. The story is messy (though I think by design), dirty and just plain wrong on so many levels, and it makes you guilty for laughing at some of the jokes. But in the end, I loved it. I think it’s one of the best movies of the year.
4.5 stars out of 5