I’m probably not the first to say that “The Wolf of Wall Street” changed filmmaking over the past decade. The film was director Martin Scorsese’s highest-grossing film, and it seemed to be the first Scorsese film ever to hit the zeitgeist. Whether it is due to the star Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of his career, the film’s amazingly crafted trailer, or the controversy surrounding the film’s MPAA rating/inappropriate content is still discussed.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a biopic on the controversial life of former stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). We start with him working his way into Wall Street as an intern at brokerage firm L.F. Rothschild, supervised by the colorfully deranged Mark Hanna (in a brief appearance by Matthew McConaughey).
Belfort’s time at Rothschild gives him a taste of being a wealthy stockbroker — but after his first day as a stockbroker (which happens to be on the day known as Black Monday), it sees him falling back into his middle-class roots, having to get a job selling penny stocks to the other working-class men.
Luckily, with Belfort’s natural ability to sell anything to anyone, he can go from successfully selling penny stocks to the poor to selling penny stocks to the rich. His charismatic techniques made him and his business partner, Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill), build Stratton Oakmont, one of the wealthiest brokerage houses in the Financial World.
When comparing the film with Scorsese’s other works, “The Wolf of Wall Street” remains his most significant outlier. Jordan Belfort’s story is usually seen as an installment in a thematic trilogy with “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” when you look at each film, you can see similarities. Each film is a biopic about men who confess to crimes of their past through voiceover narration. They have no plot, having an episodic structure in telling stories of corruption, fortune, and all the absurd aspects surrounding both subjects.
Even though the directionless film may put some people off, the film is engaging nevertheless. Scorsese and editor Schoonmaker notice how, unlike previous films in their thematic trilogy, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is much more reckless and nonsensical in tone. Belfort doesn’t take his confessional narration seriously, which is shown through his shallow introspections of his past. In contrast, Henry Hill and Ace Rothstein’s narration seems to have a sense of guilt and is thoughtful towards their description, even though they would instead continue their crimes if they had the choice.
In addition, each scene moves quickly, wasting no time showing some of the most ridiculous things Belfort put himself through in real life. Even if each scene doesn’t relate to Jordan’s “pump-and-dump” schemes with penny stocks or making Steve Madden an IPO, it enters viewers into the hectic underworld of the finance district, with drugs, alcohol, and women frequenting the behind-the-scenes of Stratton Oakmont.
Throughout Scorsese’s career, he has repeatedly discussed how “Citizen Kane” is one of his most favorite and influential films. Although you can see ‘Kane’s’ influence in many of Scorsese’s films, I believe that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the closest we see Martin direct a remake of the Orson Welles classic about Charles Foster Kane.
Both stories are about men who start from humble beginnings but have the skills to be successful businessmen. These skills lead to them attaining fame and fortune, giving them a God complex as they provide this wealth to their employees and families. But despite all of this wealth and power they have already built up, Belfort and Kane never seem content, always ready to find more control wherever they can. But while Charles Kane tries various ventures to gain power over American society, Jordan Belfort tries to take advantage of any investor who desires to make it big in the stock market.
Rewatching the performances in the film made me angry about the wins of the 86th Academy Awards. I remember the hype behind Leonardo DiCaprio ultimately receiving his Best Actor award for “The Revenant.” But I now understand that DiCaprio deserved the Oscar for his career-defining role as Jordan Belfort.
DiCaprio starts the film full of innocence as he enters Wall Street, trying to act professional in a world of amateurish men. But when Belfort gets more attention at L.F. Rothschild and the Investor Center, he sprouts more of his true colors, acting more arrogant and aggressive towards others. Even with these flaws, DiCaprio is able to make Belfort’s worst tendencies — even as he sinks deeper and deeper into his schemes — into something charismatic.
Jonah Hill is another great addition to the film as the nearly psychotic Donnie Azoff. As a well-known comedy actor, it’s easy for Jonah to act hilarious on the big screen. However, Hill does a good job of hammering home the beats of the darker side of the film (while also making people laugh at his character’s absurdity).
When we first meet Azoff, we see him as another working-class peer Belfort works with to build up Stratton Oakmont, starting as a salesman at a furniture store. But once he starts rising the ranks due to Belfort’s techniques, he takes advantage of power and money to the nth degree.
Despite humble beginnings, Azoff seems like a horrible person from the start — he abuses people below him and acts entitled toward anyone who is a minor inconvenience to him. Suppose Jordan’s character arc represented the shift in behavior that a large fortune could do to an individual. In that case, Donnie’s character arc shows the dangers of placing said fortune into the wrong hands.
Many people finish the movie believing it to be a film that says capitalism is evil and destroys the poor while benefiting the rich. However, there is also a recurring theme of Belfort’s sense of God complex as the provider of the American Dream.
After being a working-class man with a taste of luxury, he has to climb back up the financial ladder after Rothschild shuts down. The Investor Center — where he starts selling penny stocks — shows Belfort a different, more desperate side of the financial world. But with Belfort’s natural talents, he can bring hope and success to many of his peers, who are other working-class men with little to no education beyond high school — painting him as a model of Wall Street’s “work hard, play hard” mentality.
This is similar to “Citizen Kane,” where Charles Foster Kane is well-respected by the world despite the bad rumors surrounding his life. The two movies end similarly as well — as products of the American Dream, both Kane and Belfort become inspirations to the common men of their worlds, despite their flaws.