Film review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)


This film is a mess. There is no other word to describe it.

How it got nominated for five Academy Awards including best film, actor, supporting actor, director, and screenplay beats me, unless it was because of the star power of highly acclaimed director Martin Scorcese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But it did not win a single one, suggesting that there is at least some justice in the world of judging films.

The film, based on a true story, did not seem to know what it was about. Was it an expose of the Wall Street world? Was it a buddy comedy about a bunch of low-level stock traders who found a way to get rich? Was it a cat-and-mouse game between the head of this group and the FBI investigating them? Was it a morality play about the rise and fall of an ambitious young man seduced by dreams of wealth whose wives and children abandon him along the way? Was it a cautionary tale about the effects of various kinds of drugs? Was it an extended episode of that ghastly old TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that sought to reveal to us ordinary people how the extremely wealthy live? Was it meant to be a titillating romp, where the characters engage in massive amounts of drugs and sex?

I seemed like it tried to be all of these at once and part of the problem was that at three hours in length, the screenwriter and director did not feel the need to choose and the result was an exercise in wretched excess combined with just poor story-telling. Characters came and went with little explanation and there are so many of them that they are not fully developed and their motivation is unclear. This is what happens when filmmakers are given too much money and running time. The result was a sprawling, repetitive, and incoherent mess in which the basic story did not warrant this kind of epic treatment.

Knowing my antipathy to overlong films (I watched it in two sittings on successive nights), why did I watch it at all? Mainly because I am interested in the way the financial world works and I thought this might shed some insight into it. But it didn’t. There are much better films out there that serve that purpose, such as Margin Call (2011), or documentaries such as Inside Job, The Untouchables, and The Smartest Guys in the Room. In this film it was never made clear what financial crime the FBI was even investigating.

But while the film tried to do too many things, there was one glaring omission. We are told that this firm specialized in penny stocks, very cheap securities that are not traded on the big stock exchanges but for which the broker commissions are huge. These are also the kinds of stocks that are vulnerable to pump-and-dump schemes. The catch is that the people who buy these stocks tend to be the working and lower middle classes, so the people who were being swindled by the high-living brokers in the film were working stiffs. But those people never appear in the film. They are merely the butt of the joke as these brokers dupe them into buying worthless stocks. It is all shown as a big lark.

Would it have killed them to show at least one poor sap whose life was destroyed by trusting his savings to these sleazy conmen? Maybe the filmmakers felt that showing the devastating impact on real people would be too much of a downer in the midst of high jinx glorifying sex and drugs. The only concern shown for these people is by Di Caprio’s first wife in the form of a brief passing comment. One could not blame people after seeing this film thinking that what Di Capri and his associates did was not so bad and is worth emulating.

Films no longer have to be morality tales in which the bad people always get their comeuppance in the end but this film was utterly amoral in a particularly disgusting way.

Here’s the trailer.

Comments

  1. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    100% agree, the only “good” thing I can really say about this movie is you only get a chance to see such a high-budget, high-talent trainwreck every so often.

  2. colnago80 says

    I haven’t seen the film and have no plans to see it but it would appear that the denizens over at IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes beg to differ with the good professor’s analysis of the film.

  3. says

    There are much better films out there that serve that purpose, such as Margin Call (2011), or documentaries such as Inside Job, The Untouchables, and The Smartest Guys in the Room.

    Don’t forget “Too Big to Fail.”

    I haven’t seen the film and have no plans to see it but it would appear that the denizens over at IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes beg to differ with the good professor’s analysis of the film.

    So what?

  4. =8)-DX says

    Um, I’d say you’re about right as far as describing aspects of the film. I however viewed it positively because:

    – The plot and structure are a homage to Casino and other gangster films.
    – The film expresses the frustrations of many people at bankers and brokers after the recent crisis.
    – It’s visually stunning portrayal of the life of a crook, from that crooks amoral POV, makes one overwhelmed by how disgusting such people are.

    Yes, stunning wealth, bravado, arrogance, exploitation, hedonism, indifference to others and total disregard for the law are what Wall Street and the 1% are about.

    That’s why I enjoyed the film.

  5. =8)-DX says

    Would it have killed them to show at least one poor sap whose life was destroyed by trusting his savings to these sleazy conmen?

    Kind of the point was that all the “poor saps” are invisible to the wolves – they don’t give a shit and won’t start caring just after seeing it in film. How many times have bigwigs been “shocked” at how people on or under minimum wage live?

  6. Mano Singham says

    I wasn’t thinking of the reaction of the bigwigs. I was more concerned about the reaction of ordinary people who might not fully realize that it was people just like them who were being swindled by these hucksters.

  7. doublereed says

    Honestly I think it wouldn’t make sense at all to show the victims of the con men. It might appeal to us people who are appalled at such immoral actions, but frankly it’s not about that story. In fact, that would make it even more jumbled. They’re seen as the butt of the joke because that’s how con men see them. I thought that was pretty clear. It’s a movie about con men from the point of view of con men.

    Apparently a lot of the crazier shit in that movie really happened though (like them steering the boat into a storm, him wrecking the car while on queludes, him endangering his daughter in a car accident, etc.). So maybe the filmmakers were like “this guy’s life is so ridiculous and over-the-top that we should make a movie of it.”

  8. Glenn says

    =8)-DX

    “Yes, stunning wealth, bravado, arrogance, exploitation, hedonism, indifference to others and total disregard for the law are what Wall Street and the 1% are about.

    “That’s why I enjoyed the film.”

    And I totally agree.

    The first long 90 minutes were, I think, used for character (or lack-of-character development) where I further developed my hatred for the type.

    Showing the poor who were financially devastated by the get rich schemes of other poor slobs would be necessary only for those lacking a context not made available to them by the quotidian familiar.

  9. jamessweet says

    I largely agree with Mano about the movie’s problems. I like long films, but this one was way way way longer than it needed to be. I agree that the movie seemed somewhat confused about what it was trying to accomplish, and to the extent that it did know, it could have done so in half the time.

    Where I differ from Mano is that I didn’t really think it was a bad film overall… I thought it was okay, maybe better than average. But certainly tremendously overrated. It was moderately enjoyable to watch, it was shot well, the characters were interesting (even if some were underdeveloped), and ultimately it did have something to say about the sociopathic greed of Wall St (although it seemed tepid in its convictions — maybe in an attempt to avoid being heavy-handed?) But it was also a very flawed movie, and certainly not worth of a Best Picture nod.

  10. Silentbob says

    It reminded me of an earlier DiCaprio film, Catch Me If You Can, also a true story, about the extraordinary exploits of a con man who passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, and an airline pilot, without training in any of them, while making a fortune from forging cheques.

    Both films are not so much morality plays as sly celebrations of immorality. Even though the protagonist gets his comeuppance, he’s presented as a lovable rogue we’re supposed to admire for his sheer audacity in getting away with so much for so long – and his comeuppance turns out to be not that bad in the end. Frank Abagnale (Catch Me If You Can) ended up working for the very cops that caught him as their forgery and fraud expert. Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) is today a celebrity sales trainer. Both successfully parleyed their criminal past into ‘legit’ careers. (Not to mention having Hollywood movies made about them.)

    I enjoyed both movies even though their sympathies are clearly morally dubious.

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