“The wolf of the title,” writes Max Nelson for Film Comment, “like Henry Hill in Goodfellas and Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta (or, for that matter, Hugo’s Georges Méliès), is inspired by a figure too relentlessly self-mythologizing to invent: Jordan Belfort, the stock swindler who founded and ran the infamous ‘boiler room’ firm Stratton Oakmont until 1998, when he was arrested and charged with over 10 counts of money-laundering and securities fraud. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s a performer without an off switch, a hungry young guy with a cooped-up ego and a head full of get-rich-or-die-trying ambitions. For the movie’s first two hours, which are pitched somewhere between Hill’s tweaked-out police-helicopter hide-and-seek in Goodfellas and James Franco’s ‘look at my shit’ monologue in Spring Breakers, Belfort gives us a proud, enthusiastic voiceover account of his many public and private offenses… In its last hour, the film sobers up…. Sure, the obligatory soapbox pronouncements on the perils of corruption and the emptiness of hedonism are there if you look for them, but there’s also a touching ambivalence on Scorsese’s part towards his hero: a mixture of pity, disdain, fascination, and identification.”
“[O]ne of the reasons we made The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese recently told Kaleem Aftab in an interview for the Independent, was “not to show the greed, but to be in the greed, to be part of it, part of the exaltation of it, part of the excitement of it and part of the destruction it causes. I was born in 1942. After the war, I remember America in the 1950s, yes it was more innocent, more quote/unquote repressed, no doubt, culturally, to a certain extent. I don’t remember, honestly, and we weren’t taught a great deal in certain schools, in certain specific things about American history, but I don’t remember them saying that the country was formed only so that everybody could get rich, I just don’t believe it. That feels, for me right now, that is what it feels like.”
This is one “long, flatulent black comedy,” finds Eric Henderson, writing in Slant (the official running time is one minute short of three hours). “Scorsese’s keyed-up, irreverent tone frequently fails to distinguish itself from the grunting arias sung by the oily paragons of commerce his film evidently intended to deflate. In fact, Scorsese’s slobbering enthusiasm over screenwriter Terence Winter’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Heartless only confirms the validity of the hard sell.”
Wolf is “essentially a drug comedy in financial crime drag,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky before ruminating on one of his favorite scenes—one of his favorites of the year, actually—at the AV Club.
In the New York Times, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes suss out the film’s awards potential (similarly, Mike Hogan and Christopher Rosen for Vanity Fair) and note: “Unlike Margin Call, a drama based on the crisis of 2007 and 2008, or Wall Street, which tackled the junk bond era, [The Wolf of Wall Street] will offer no lessons about mainstream finance. Rather, it is a New York-based story about scammers scamming scammers…. In fact, Mr. Scorsese’s movie walks much the same turf as American Hustle.” Also in the NYT, Melena Ryzik talks with editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Deadline‘s Pete Hammond caught an early guild screening: “To say it was rapturously received would be an understatement…. I would label the movie ‘Scorsese’s Satyricon,’ a wild ride full of contemporary debauchery to say the least (DiCaprio compared some of it to Caligula), with a fine ensemble and a frenetic pace.”
“Someone described it to me a few weeks ago as ‘Marty on methamphetamine,'” notes Kristopher Tapley at In Contention, “and I’m not going to argue with that.”
For the Playlist, Alex Suskind‘s attended a press conference with “Scorsese and DiCaprio—joined on stage by co-stars Rob Reiner and Kyle Chandler, screenwriter Terence Winter, and producers John MacFarland, Riza Aziz, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff—[who] spoke about their fear of making something this risky, the difficulty of getting the movie financed, and some of the film’s most memorable sequences.”
Updates, 12/18: Wolf is “a nimble, impossibly jocund thing, it throbs and pulsates with life, eager to sop up the world’s generous excess,” writes Calum Marsh at Little White Lies. And “it seems that between After Hours, The King of Comedy and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has proven himself as much a master of comedy as, say, crime drama or the mafia picture, and perhaps it’s time we begin to reevaluate this dimension of his style. While Wolf is indeed a sprawling, staggering work, grappling with contemporary anxieties and the modern condition with intelligence and maturity, the first quality for which it ought to be praised is its humor. Its excellence in other areas aside, this is plainly among the funniest films of the year—ribald, riotous, ridiculous.”
For the New Yorker‘s David Denby, “the entire movie feels manic and forced, as though Scorsese is straining to make the craziest, most over-the-top picture ever—as if he is determined, at 71, to outdo his earlier triumphs, Raging Bull and GoodFellas, and to show that he’s still the king. Put crudely, this is his attempt to out-Tarantino Tarantino. I didn’t much care for Wolf, but every time I describe it to someone he says, ‘I want to see that!'”
“Underneath all of the fast-paced ‘fun’ and entertainment value of the movie that so many critics have been made ecstatic by, or made alienated by, there lies, ever present, in the fact of the way the frames are composed, a distance,” writes Glenn Kenny. “And within that distance there is a steely anger.”
For Variety‘s Scott Foundas, this is “a movie that huffs and puffs and nearly blows its own house down, but holds together by sheer virtue of its furious filmmaking energy.” Still, “It lacks the dynamic emotional range of a Mean Streets or Goodfellas, or the intricate plotting of a Casino, and for all its amusing guest stars (Rob Reiner as Belfort’s combustible dad, Jean Dujardin as a pompous Swiss banker) and caper-like episodes, almost everything unfolds in the same manic register. Even when the movie is really cooking (which is often), there’s a feeling that scenes are being held for a few beats too many, that Scorsese and his ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker simply didn’t have enough time to do the elegant fine-tuning they’re accustomed to (an impression reinforced by several conspicuous continuity gaffes and badly matched cuts throughout the film).”
“Nearly as extravagant as the characters it depicts, Martin Scorsese’s comic, operatically-scaled film is, on a moment-by-moment basis, often madly entertaining due to its live-wire energy, exuberant performances and the irresistible appeal of watching naughty boys doing very naughty things,” writes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “At the same time, the dramatic strategy of titilating an audience with salacious behavior for 90 percent of the time, only to deliver a wages-of-sin message at the end, is older than Cecil B. DeMille, while the hopped-up visuals, editing and music feel like the stylistic equivalent of doubling up coke and Viagra.”
“Watching it is like observing an old dog by the fireplace, kicking its legs against the blanket as it dreams of chasing rabbits in its youth,” suggests the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “It lacks the wildness of Taxi Driver, the jeopardy of GoodFellas and the anguish of Raging Bull. Far better to view this as a stylistic homage, a remastered greatest hits compilation, an amiable bit of self-infringement. So many directors have built a career from ripping off Scorsese; it’s hard to begrudge Scorsese wanting a piece of the pie. He gives us a film that is polished and punchy, chock-full of beans and throwing out sparks. He’s enjoying himself and the fun is infectious.”
For the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, “every second, every frame of its three-hour running time is virile with a lifetime’s accumulated genius…. [T]he violence of the language comes from its machine-gun rhythms as much as the words themselves, and in the film’s more frantic moments it can start to sound like gunfire. The physical violence, too, is shocking, because Scorsese is attuned not to blood and gore but to the details that lodge in your memory.”
“Gradually, it dawns on you that the protagonists here aren’t big-time gangsters,” notes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. “They’re white-collar office workers who sell stocks over the phone. You can only glamorize such characters so far. Their infantile behavior is made painfully obvious in one of the film’s very best sequences, in which Belfort is reduced to crawling like a baby after popping too many Quaaludes.”
At the Atlantic Wire, Esther Zuckerman predicts that Wolf “will be idolized for all the wrong reasons…. Call me a prude, but I had a hard time seeing any indictment of Belfort’s lifestyle and boiler room culture in the movie.”
Peter Martin at Twitch: “The Wolf of Wall Street finds both director and actor baying at the moon, streaking naked for all to see their shortcomings and strengths, flexing their muscles and refusing to cower at the prospect of an unconventional narrative and an unrepentantly avaricious protagonist.” It “my sweet spot explode. It’s a smart, explosive, and very, very funny movie, with an acute understanding of the peculiarities of greed and its corrosive effect upon the soul.”
Wolf is “undoubtedly the craziest movie of Martin Scorsese’s career,” argues Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “Scorsese depicts his maniacal subjects far better than he interrogates their mania.”
Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey: “‘Stratton-Oakmont is America.’ That’s the name of their firm, introduced in the dignified television commercial that opens the movie, in which a gravitas-dripping narrator explains the company’s responsibility and respectability. Scorsese then hard-cuts to a dwarf-tossing competition on the sales floor. The message is clear: this is America, and these are the greedy, drug-fueled children who just about drove it into the fucking ground.”
“This is without doubt the funniest movie of Scorsese’s career,” writes Tom Huddleston in Time Out London. “The Wolf of Wall Street plays modern tragedy as epic farce, reminding us just how much fun Scorsese can be when he’s in a playful mood.”
Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist: “One of the ballsiest and most extreme studio movies to come down the pike in recent years—it’s like Marty’s mobster thug friends threatened to bust the MPAA’s kneecaps.”
“What sets the film apart from other celebrations of debauchery like Project X and The Hangover is not just skill; it’s that it is possible to be revolted by what’s onscreen and thoroughly enchanted by it at the same time.” Katey Rich for Vanity Fair: “Instead of indulging in all the bad behavior before about-facing for redemption in the end, Scorsese puts the celebration and the revulsion side by side. He uses 40 years of cinematic experience to judge Belfort and company more harshly than the world ever did.”
Anne Thompson attended a screening introduced by Jonah Hill, who said: “‘Prepare yourselves. It’s a crazy insane exciting movie to watch.’ Right he was.”
Updates, 12/26: Before we turn back to the reviews, we need to note that Farran Nehme has written a cover story for Barron’s, digging into the story Wolf is based on—and its consequences: “The movie buys into Belfort’s self-aggrandizing view of his Wall Street status, with DiCaprio even telling his acolytes they’re going after ‘the wealthiest 1%.’ Moviegoers who buy that plotline, however, are purchasing another Belfort bill of goods. In reality, the victims were more like John Kilroy, a Pizza Hut franchisee in Maineville, Ohio. Kilroy, who lost an ‘upsetting’ amount of money in Stratton Oakmont’s crooked stocks, says he received only token restitution from the roughly $11 million seized from Belfort and Porush. After pleading guilty to fraud and money laundering in 1999, Belfort was ordered to make restitution of $110.4 million—plus interest.” And that hasn’t even come close to happening.
That injustice is infuriating. So, too, are several of things Belfort and his employees get up to within the world of the movie. And some critics want to see a clearer-cut condemnation from Scorsese. They’re “after greater moral clarity (as well as a substantially reduced running time),” as Sam Adams puts it in a fine piece at Criticwire. “But for me, the lack of moral clarity—or rather, the clear delineation of opposing (a)moral perspectives—is what makes Wolf such a thrilling, and deeply conscientious, work.” Very much a recommended read. He also reviews Wolf for the Philadelphia City Paper (A-).
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in the Notebook: “It wouldn’t be too hard to turn Belfort’s story into a tragic cautionary tale—a young man overwhelmed by the lure of sex, drugs, and power, etc.—but Scorsese, DiCaprio, and screenwriter Terence Winter play him up as an overtly comic, ridiculous figure: a big-time brat, incapable of controlling his impulses, who runs his penny stock empire like a demented Greek-letter fraternity, entertaining his pledges / employees with competitions, marching bands, strippers, and rah-rah pep rallies…. During one of his fourth-wall-breaking monologues, he tells the audience that it doesn’t matter if they understand what’s actually going on in his financial empire—the only thing they need to know is that it’s all very illegal. Wrongness—social, legal, emotional—becomes the subject of the film. These people can do this, it seems to say, and it doesn’t matter why.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “Anyone who needs The Wolf of Wall Street to explain that the stock-market fraud and personal irresponsibility it depicts are morally wrong is dead from the neck up; but anyone who can’t take vast pleasure in its depiction of delinquent behavior is dead from the neck down.” Wolf is “like mainlining cinema for three hours, and I wouldn’t have wanted it a minute shorter…. Its furious cinematic inventions are no mere flourishes; they’re essential to Scorsese’s vision of Belfort’s story, and to the disturbing moral ideas that he extracts from it. The Wolf of Wall Street may be Scorsese’s most fully realized movie, with its elaboration of a world view that, without endorsing Belfort’s predatory manipulations and reckless adventures, acknowledges the essential vitality at their core.”
In the future, “as now,” writes the NYT‘s A.O. Scott, “the movie is likely to be the subject of intense scholarly debate: Does it offer a sustained and compelling diagnosis of the terminal pathology that afflicts us, or is it an especially florid symptom of the disease?… Its treatment of women is the strongest evidence for the second option…. The movie’s misogyny is not the sole property of its characters, nor is the humiliation and objectification of women—an insistent, almost compulsive motif—something it merely depicts. Mr. Scorsese, never an especially objective sociologist, is at least a participant-observer. His camera has always operated partly in the service of his id. This is a virtue and a failing, since his best films register a passionate fascination with the frequently ugly worlds they depict, a reluctance (or inability) to step back.”
Wolf is “one of the most entertaining films ever made about loathsome men,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. It’s also “disgusted by this story and these people and finds them grotesque, often filming them from distorted angles or in static wide shots that make them seem like well-dressed animals in lushly decorated terrariums…. There will be a few points during Wolf, maybe more than a few, when you think, ‘These people are revolting, why am I tolerating this, much less getting a vicarious thrill from it?’ At those moments, think about what the ‘it’ refers to. It’s not just these characters, and this setting, and this particular story. It’s the world we live in. In theory, men like Jordan work for us. They represent us, even as they’re robbing us blind.”
Wolf is “about sales—about sales culture, sales tactics, sales sensibilities, sales targets.” Calum Marsh, former salesman, argues at Film.com that Wolf is “less concerned with the transgressions of exceptional money-launderers than it is with the more permissible breaches of trust on which the entire enterprise was founded. This is what grounds the film in the real world—what connects it, urgently and provocatively, with the mundane and the everyday…. Scorsese has already been criticized, most recently by Slate’s business and economics correspondent Matthew Yglesias, for eliding ‘the real scandal’ of unscrupulous (though still legal) investment advice, as well as for variously glamorizing, indulging, and even lionizing the behavior of Belfort, his high-rolling, model-f**king, quaalude-popping lead. Yglesias is right that Belfort is an extraordinary case, and that the daily misdeeds of real Wall Street executives are more insidious. But what he misunderstands is that Scorsese has made a movie precisely about their wrongdoings, and the wrongdoings of anybody inclined to sell—and he’s illustrated the reasons they continue to get away with it.”
“On the one hand,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland, “what the banking industry has done to this country is no laughing matter. The myriad scandals and the men who perpetrated them (it’s never women) have inspired the high-minded hand-wringing of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the outraged horror show of Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. There have been films and TV shows as different as Boiler Room, Margin Call, Arbitrage, Damages, and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, in which a woman’s Madoff-like husband ruins her family’s life. These are mostly heavy movies, even Allen’s. On the other hand, there’s a certain audacity in throwing comedy at the problem. But it’s all visual comedy: the opulence of such ugly, ‘luded-out people in slow motion, the aerial shots of the mornings after all the fuckfests that give the impression that a massacre occurred. The sustained juxtaposition of glam rock, combat, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous gets you high while also making you sad and kind of sick.”
Wolf is “one of the most savagely funny portrayals of porcine debauchery if also one of the most depleting,” writes Melissa Anderson for Artforum. “In his fifth project with Scorsese, DiCaprio is also a source of enervation, his first-person voice-over—a staple of the director’s filmography—made even more obtrusive by his frequent direct-address to the camera; dating to at least Gangs of New York (2002), his initial collaboration with Scorsese, the star seems to have confused the best acting with the most acting. Still, this bawdy mess of a movie is far preferable to 2011’s stupefyingly adored Margin Call, in which the 2008 financial freak-out is recast as a white-collar weepie.”
Scott Tobias at the Dissolve: “It’s juvenile. It’s sexist. It’s criminal. And it’s also, in Scorsese’s view, capitalism at its essence.”
Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York: “Much like its cocky protagonist, The Wolf of Wall Street is a slippery beast, both beguiling and repellent on the surface, more difficult to pin down the deeper you look, and shifty in ways that I found intoxicating.”
“There’s a lot of sense in Martin Scorsese, our premier cinematic authority on American sin, bringing this real-life tale of greed and hedonism to the screen,” finds A.A. Dowd at the AV Club. “But who could have predicted that he’d turn it into a flat-out comedy, one as boldly excessive as the lives it chronicles?”
New York‘s David Edelstein: “The movie has no scope; there’s barely enough content for a short. The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of horrible people doing horrible things and admitting to being horrible. But you’re supposed to envy them anyway.” Really?
“Unlike the hapless marks that Jordan and Donnie sweet-talk into buying penny stocks, I just can’t bring myself to invest,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens.
David Fear for the Nashville Scene: “So you settle in for the Goodfellas of boiler-room movies, only to get the Casino edition—a bloated, rambling, shapeless epic that’s way too high off the excitement of its own excesses.”
“This may be the highest-velocity three-hour movie I’ve ever seen,” writes the Atlantic‘s Christopher Orr. “Does Wolf have the heft or depth of Goodfellas? Of course not. The stakes are lower, the tone breezier, the excesses vastly more excessive. But you know what they say: second time, farce. The Wolf of Wall Street is not a subtle movie, or a thoughtful movie, or a particularly innovative movie. But for those susceptible to its vulgar charms, Scorsese’s latest is a great—no, a fucking great—movie movie.”
“It’s nearly injectable cinema,” writes Ray Pride in Newcity Film.
“This is as much one of Scorsese’s concert docs (Shine a Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) as it is one of his narrative epics,” suggests Bilge Ebiri. Belfort “sells stocks with messianic fervor; then he sells selling stocks with messianic fervor. It’s a perfect subject on which to hitch an extended DiCaprio concert.”
In the latest “3View,” Variety critics Justin Chang (7/10), Peter Debruge (3/10), and Scott Foundas (7/10) explain their grades.
“After Shutter Island, Hugo, and Shine a Light,” writes Erik Henriksen in the Stranger, “it was easy to worry that the 71-year-old director was ossifying, but The Wolf of Wall Street annihilates those concerns. This is a movie that’s funny and alive and furious, and it’s as good as anything Scorsese’s ever done…. When The Wolf of Wall Street ended, I wished there was more of it. And that’s the best compliment I can give to a movie about a douchebag.”
“I’ve got no objection to a three-hour movie in theory,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap, “but Scorsese and his legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker allow the film to repeat itself from time to time, overdoing a tale that is itself already about the act of overdoing it.”
“Riddled with continuity errors, lacking a consistently coherent chronology, and intermittently oblivious as to what constitutes the heart of a scene, Wolf is one of the generally meticulous Scorsese’s sloppiest works,” finds Josef Braun. “Maybe he was having too much fun.”