This film review of “The Wolf of Wall Street” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 30 January 2014.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin and Joanna Lumley
After more than four decades of vigorous and ground-breaking film-making, Martin Scorsese’s latest, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, literally crashes into Australian cinemas. Imagine Scorsese’s frenetic gangster film “Goodfellas” crossed with Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”; add a dose of funny voice over and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role of Jordan Belfort, a real-life young crash-and-burn Wall Street trader.
The title of this film has multiple meanings, and comes from Belfort’s first memoir. Belfort is the voracious “wolf” who eats little people, red riding hood style. But a better story analogy is one coined by a Forbes magazine writer in 1991: he is a “twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers.”
Jordan Belfort rises fast to make loads of money (and not just from the rich), living a lifestyle of fast cars, many women, drugs and alcohol. This bacchanalian tale includes excessive doses of sex, pill-popping, nudity and cursing. In fact, the film has more uses of the “f” word (about 550) than any other film in history: that’s more than three per minute in a179-minute film. So be warned: if you are not able to last through three hours of female flesh, pills and strong language, this is not the film for you.
But with five Oscar nominations – best film, best director, best actor (DiCaprio), best supporting actor (Jonah Hill) and best adapted screenplay – “The Wolf of Wall Street” is solidly entertaining, funny and one of the big events of this film season. It’s a hilarious and wry black comedy that attempts (not always successfully) to satirise the culture of excess that has taken over the American financial services industry. In his scenes of lifestyle indulgence, DiCaprio gives a great performance, including a physical comedy we have rarely seen before.
Scorsese’s sense of humour continues in his other casting decisions. Australian actress Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s second wife with astonishing depth and as a fully convincing New Yorker. Matthew McConaughey plays the multiple-martini-lunch broker who first introduces Belfort to the techniques of Wall Street fun and money-making. Jean Dujardin (of the Oscar-winning “The Artist”) gleefully plays the sleazy French Swiss banker who helps Belfort hide millions in a Swiss bank, assisted by Belfort’s wife’s British “Aunt Emma” (Joanna Lumley). And in smaller roles, Jewish essayist Fran Leibowitz plays the judge who sentences Belfort, film-maker Spike Jonze (born Adam Spiegel, director of “Her”) appears and the real Jordan Belfort shows up to play a host who introduces the DiCaprio version of himself.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” holds some uncomfortable questions for Jews. Although not specifically identified in the film, the real Jordan Belfort is Jewish. The DiCaprio character makes numerous references to “WASPs”, and consciously chooses the very WASPy company name “Stratton Oakmont”. Belfort’s father Max (played by iconic Jewish actor/director Rob Reiner) is even more explicitly Jewish. So are almost all of Belfort’s friends, many with obvious Jewish names. DiCaprio’s voice over describes Jonah Hill’s character of Donnie Azoff as wearing “horn-rimmed glasses with clear lenses so as to look like a WASP”. Drug dealer friend Brad Bodnick wears a very prominent golden necklace “Chai”. Why were – are – Jews like Belfort heavily over-represented amongst Wall Street insider traders and other financial criminals (think Bernie Madoff)?
Finally, one of the challenges faced by this film is its moral murkiness. Despite numerous proven charges of insider trading and money laundering, Jordan Belfort spends only three years in prison (in real life, less than two) and is sentenced to pay defrauded investors $110million (of which little has been paid in real life). At the end of the film, he is shown running a successful motivational speaking business, talking in New Zealand. Is this sufficient payback for a professional life spent defrauding investors?