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The Wolf Of Wall Street

by Leonard Maltin
December 25, 2013 3:58 AM
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Leonardo DiCaprio-Wolf of Wall Street-680
Photo by Mary Cybulski - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Every Martin Scorsese film brings with it great expectations, and rightly so. His collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio has been fruitful, for the most part, but this may the actor’s best work yet. To whatever degree The Wolf of Wall Street succeeds, it is largely because DiCaprio is so believable as Jordan Belfort, the young lion who made stock trading a sport in the 1980s and ‘90s and rewarded himself (and those around him) with a non-stop bacchanal.

The pitfall of making a film about excessive behavior is that the film itself may become excessive. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (creator of Boardwalk Empire) make a point of not judging the characters or their animalistic conduct; they leave that to us. The result is a film that soars to new heights of depravity, graphically enacted in one orgy scene after another. It’s pretty gamy stuff; this could never be mistaken for a female empowerment tale. There is also more cocaine usage than in Brian De Palma’s Scarface—and that’s saying something.

But without a moral center, Wolf seems to revel in this cornucopia of bad behavior. (DiCaprio’s first wife might have fulfilled that function, but she’s dismissed early on—a character who could have been better developed.) Some of it is so over-the-top that it’s sputteringly hilarious, as when DiCaprio’s right-hand man (Jonah Hill), in a coked-up stupor, picks a fight with a comrade that can only lead to disaster, or when DiCaprio, high on Quaaludes, attempts to drive himself home from a Long Island country club that’s just a mile from his house. It’s the funniest hallucination ever put on film.

Jonah Hill-Wolf of Wall Street-680
Photo by Mary Cybulski - Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The risk is the same as that of vintage gangster movies and even the 1983 remake of Scarface: we find ourselves fascinated with, and even rooting for, characters who are scummy through and through. By having DiCaprio address the camera as he tells his story, Scorsese makes us complicit. Scorsese has never been one to shy away from the underbelly of society, and he treats this extreme rise-and-fall saga as a three-hour thrill ride. He never blinks at the gross sexual shenanigans or drug usage and he doesn’t expect us to, either.   

And that’s my problem: far too often, I was repelled and wanted to look away. There is much to admire in the masterful filmmaking and superior performances on display, but it’s a tough film to digest for three hours straight. Perhaps if viewed on a small screen at home the impact would be muted, but seen larger than life in a theater, it’s pretty intense.   

I love DiCaprio’s work here, and Jonah Hill hits a new high in his still-burgeoning career. There is no way one can dismiss a film of such high quality…but that doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable ride. 

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  • Riel | February 3, 2014 11:47 AMReply

    Hi Leonard,

    I have followed your film reviews for many years. I don't always agree with you but I admire your thoroughness. I don't like this review. You've basically explained that this is a film of "high quality" and that the performances were solid, and that the scene with driving the sports car home is "the funniest hallucination ever put on film."

    By your comments and my experience with your many editions of film review compilations, I see this translating as three and a half stars in your book. Why give it a bad review, then, on Rotten Tomatoes? You could have said, "A great film but hard to recommend."

    Anyway, I am concerned with your motivations for how you handled this film. I will leave it at that.

  • Riel | February 4, 2014 11:28 AM

    I want to take back some of what I said.

    After reviewing Rotten Tomatoes' procedure and rereading Leonard's review, I can't really fault Mr. Maltin. Going back over his reviews of movies like Scarface and other films featuring unsavory subject matter, Leonard is pretty consistent. And I agree that the film is a bit much to see on the big screen--it would be better digested at home with the ability to take breaks over the long running time, if only to avoid sensory overload.

    I would classify this film as "extreme picaresque," and I suppose I could not recommend it without several cautionary statements.

  • jay | January 31, 2014 11:39 AMReply

    Too shallow for a satire and much too boring (endless redundant scenes!) for a drama - Seems like this movie got out of hand like Belfort's life - and I don't think this was intended! A big disappointment only diCaprio's performance holding this together halfway.

  • BILLY | January 26, 2014 8:01 AMReply

    you should set up your reviews on your website like roger ebert site. it very easy to see all movies and how many star is given. your site does not show that!

  • KING CRAB | January 10, 2014 3:31 PMReply

    SEEME you hit the nail on the head with tWoWS. This movie was fantastic... Fun and MUCH deeper than these OLD, tired, easily-disgusted, choirboy critics make it out to be.

  • IT IT OUT | January 6, 2014 9:13 AMReply

    Decades STALE, second hand, done-to-death Scorsese.

    WHO needs another turn in Oliver Stone's overflowing litter box?

  • dwchu | December 31, 2013 10:37 AMReply

    Movie reminds me a lot of DePalma's Scarface - with its social comment on the excesses of American lifestyle at the top, especially by those who come to wealth rapidly, but also with Scarface's concomitant faults, such as the mind-numbing mise-en-scene depicting those excesses.

  • SeeMe | December 31, 2013 2:27 AMReply

    tWoWS was good, actually. Underrated (like Shutter Island was). The film in my opinion is quite critical of JB's (and all the film's 'wolves' connected to Wall Street) irresponsible behavior and, in depicting such awful judgment/behavior, I felt as though Marty (MS) has held a mirror up to the faces of Americans: this is what we have [become]. He's saying, "no wonder there's unbridled chaos on Wall Street, just look at the behavior of these people. They are not being policed. We have become people who barely care about anything but getting ahead financially." And, come on, MS' direction of the WoWS actors, camera work, editing, and set design is some of his best--definitely worth the price of admission. I don't really like Leo but he was excellent--I've never seen him work so hard. And there wasn't nearly as much sex as people make it out to be and it was shown rather quickly for the most part. Masterful filmmaking. My only problem was w/the yacht-storm scene--JB's sooooooo rich, just get on a damn plane/helicopter. The drugs, I guess. Nevertheless, it was a dumb scene. Otherwise, its a solid movie that didn't seem like it was three hours long at all. MS has been so damn good for so long (people are kind of spoiled) that if it isn't a super masterpiece (which they never reward him for anyway) people are up in arms. Critically challenged MS films are still far better than 95% of the films out there. And for people to actually assert that Gangs of New York was better than tWoWS---they are doing more drugs than Jordan ever did. Now, Gangs...sucked, big time. I remember people hating Casino, literally. Now everyone loves it. Wolf will have the same result of post-appreciation. And why do critics expect the film to contain wholly women? Some of the female characters were scum just like the men. Equal opportunity screw ups. See this movie---while not expecting apologies for victims (who should have freakin' known better than to be so gullible to cold-calling salespeople anyway). Give MS a break.

  • New Haven Yank | December 31, 2013 2:12 AMReply

    Does Maltin still stand by his horrrendously misinformed opinion of "Taxi Driver?" He obviously still hasn't gotten beyond that. Another old world critic who never did get Scorsese, period.

    His credibility on films made after 1972 is a bit too precious for me. Back to the classics of old Hollywood Leonard.

  • steve barr | December 28, 2013 3:46 AMReply

    Martin Scorsese - the greatest directorial masturbator of the last thirty years . He has said his film wasn't made for fourteen year olds . I don't agree . If your fourteen nudity . profanity and drugs makes a movie great no matter what the movie is trying to say.

  • Adam | December 30, 2013 10:34 AM

    I know a few fourteen-year-olds who have a much better grasp on spelling and punctuation than you do, Steve.

  • Carey | December 26, 2013 10:25 PMReply

    "rooting for characters who are scummy through and through"...Does that sound like the zeitgeist in America right now? I have yet to see a review that mentions the elephant in the room, namely, the growing discontent of Americans towards the people depicted in this film.

  • mike schlesinger | December 27, 2013 6:20 PM

    Well, that's already baked into the film's DNA. It's really Scorsese's version of a Robert Aldrich film: Horrid characters put on display for us to mock and sneer at, while we simultaneously enjoy the rollercoaster. I can see how people who tend not to dig beneath the surface would hate this film, but it really is brilliant in a bimodal way.

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