Once upon a time, Judge Daryl Loomis was known as the Parakeet of F Street.
Sell me this pen.
So there's this phenomenon in which somebody does something undeniably terrible or really dumb, but when the person tells the story, it's a great one, absolutely hilarious, and a story you ask the person to tell over and over. You know it's an awful experience, something you would never want to experience yourself, but if the story is well-told, it's fantastic. That's what happened when grand penny stock fraudster Jordan Belfort started his three year prison sentence when he told his stories to his cellmate, Tommy Chong. Chong, rolling on the floor laughing, convinced Belfort to write this stuff down. Finally, this became the best-selling novel, The Wolf of Wall Street. Years later, Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) brought that book to the screen in spectacular fashion and now it arrives on Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio, Gangs of New York) grew up as a Long Islander with aspirations of wealth, so he's thrilled when he's able to secure a job on Wall Street. He's making a great living and loving life, but has to do something else when the stock market crashes and his firm goes bankrupt. But he's got the taste, so he starts trading penny stocks, worthless pieces of paper sold to teachers, plumbers, and firefighters to bilk them of whatever savings they might have. Soon, he's got a firm full of people willing to scam regular people and he has literally millions of dollars coming in every day. The high life, in all manners of speaking, is great for a while, but eventually, the chickens come home to roost and the drugs and the excess and the crime finally catch up to him.
When The Wolf of Wall Street arrived in theaters, there was plenty of discussion over whether Scorsese was delivering an admonition or wish fulfillment from the Jordan Belfort story. The answer is that he does both and neither at the same time.
Nobody pretends what Belfort did was a good thing. At least during the period in which the movie takes place, he's an awful human being with no redeemable qualities except for maybe his quality drug dealers. At the same time, there's no denying that watching all the sex, drugs, and money that Belfort swims in is fun to watch. It's the same as watching Henry Hill in Goodfellas and, while I imagine an identical argument was made about glorifying gangsters in 1990, nobody pretends that's the case today, even if that movie is still fantastic twenty years later. The Wolf of Wall Street is similarly fantastic and one of the best movies of his entire career, at least in terms of sheer entertainment value.
All of this starts with Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who I've never much cared for in the past, but who is absolutely phenomenal here. He gets both the sheer glee of his moneymaking and the desperation that comes when it starts to fall apart perfectly. At times, mid-monologue, he becomes a different person, changing from the charming guy who beds the broads into a monster, the absolute embodiment of his wolfen moniker. At turns truly funny and truly terrifying, this is an impressive, outstanding performance, especially given that he's basically on the screen for the entire three hours, but his performance never gets old.
But the entire cast is a winner here. The biggest surprise is Jonah Hill (Superbad), who I've never really accepted as a dramatic actor until now. He's still very funny, sure, but he stands up next to DiCaprio in many of the more dramatic and disturbing scenes without missing a beat. Rob Reiner (All in the Family) is my favorite, though, as Jordan's father, "Mad" Max Belfort. Again, very funny, but delivering all the drama that's required of him. Matthew McConaughy (Dallas Buyers Club) proves his versatility once again with his brief ten-minute improvised appearance as Belfort's orginal mentor, while John Favreau (Iron Man) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist) are brilliant in more brief, but crucial roles. And special mention to Margot Robbie (About Time), who plays Naomi, Belfort's second wife. She's fantastic, but the trouble is that, in a movie where everything is an object, so are the women. That goes from the three-tiered prostitute/stocks metaphor all the way to the top. Naomi is one of three things: a whore, a gold digger, or a shrew, but she's never a real person, and that's really one of the only strikes I have against the movie.
The script by Terence Winter (Get Rich or Die Trying) is constantly snappy, witty, and fun. Rich with colorful expletives and all the drugs a viewer can handle, it moves fast, even if I feel it's a bit long at three hours. He wanted to get the book onto the screen and he definitely does; every bit of hilarity that makes up Belfort's book makes its way to the script and the actors dove in with aplomb.
As for Scorsese, it's impossible to deny the skill and vision he brings to the table. Sure, this is the same basic rise and fall story that he's told plenty of times, but it's a classic and nobody does it better than him. He takes Winter's script and, through his ability to let actors improvise and his sheer abilities as a director, makes it absolutely sing. This is not my favorite of his movies; likely nothing will ever overtake Mean Streets for my aesthetic, but it's so much damn fun, while still walking that line between admonition and glorification. What that means to me is that Scorsese understands how complicated Belfort is and makes that beautifully clear in The Wolf of Wall Street.
The only trouble with the experience is the Blu-ray, though not on a technical level. The 2.40:1/1080p image is absolutely gorgeous. Colors are beautiful and detail is top-notch. You can see the thread lines in the suits and the skin shows wrinkles, blemishes, and beads of sweat with absolute clarity. One might argue that it's all a little warm, but that's quibbling; this thing looks fantastic. The audio is brilliant, as well. Dialog is clear and bright, the music is loud but balanced in the mix, and, even though this is a dialog-heavy film, the dynamic range is brilliant throughout spectrum.
And then there's the extras. Or, should I say, the extra, because there's only one, and that's pathetic for something this award-laden. It's a fifteen minute featurette called "The Wolfpack," a standard albeit high quality piece on the movie. It's mostly DiCaprio, but Scorsese, producers, and a few actors jump in to say a few words. However, it's clear that Paramount rushed this to shelves to cash in on the post-Oscar buzz and, next year, will release the version they should have released here. Lame, Paramount, totally lame.
That aside, rarely have I been so utterly entertained by a Martin Scorsese movie as I was by The Wolf of Wall Street. It deserves every award it has received and my mind, at least in part, has been changed about Leonardo DiCaprio. That says something if you've ever listened to me talk about the guy, but here we are. Beautiful, hilarious, sad, exciting, and infuriating. I don't know what more you want out of a movie.
I will not f***ing die sober!
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