The Wolf of Wall Street
4K Ultra- HD + Digital
Paramount Home Video
2013 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 190 min. / Street Date December 14, 2021 / Available from / 25.99
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Jake Hoffman, Fran Lebowitz, Robert Clohessy.
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production Designer: Bob Shaw
Art Director: Chris Shriver
Costume Designer: Sandy Powell
Film Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Written by Terence Winter from the book by Jordan Belfort
Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Directed by Martin Scorsese
We went through this torment seventeen years earlier on Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a 2.5- hour gangster picture with essentially the same storyline and character arc. Eager punk Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) enters a mob and becomes incredibly corrupt; he lives a life of crime openly laughing at all the honest clods who haven’t the nerve, connections, and bald malice to just take what they want and screw everybody else. Eventually the law and craven self-interest make Hill rat out his friends, after which he simmers in the illusion that he embodied something great about America.
By the mid-point of The Wolf of Wall Street I was begging to be told that Jordan Belfort and his corps of corrupt stockbrokers were fictional characters. No such luck. Their shameless thievery beats everything Henry Hill & Co. did by a power of ten, yielding so much unearned cash that they believe they possess a God-like superiority. Their egotistical behavior goes beyond abusive and grotesque, it’s truly psychotic. Wolf clearly wants to shock us, to open our eyes to the scope of awfulness that’s possible in a largely unregulated economy. We still believe the American system works, but does anyone else? This isn’t the latest or the most destructive Wall Street rip-off, as reflected in Adam McKay’s 2015 film The Big Short. The arrogance and contempt of this scum warps society’s values to the point where one of their ilk could even be elected President.
The lowbrow hoods of Goodfellas pulled off some nasty crimes but their threat to the public at large was limited, and their personal ambitions were pathetically middle-class: they did not threaten our way of life. Hill’s crooks also compensated somewhat by purging their own ranks with paranoid bloodbath murders that show that crime often really does not pay. But nobody walks Wolf’s Donnie Azoff into a dark room on the pretext that he’s to become ‘a made man.’ The worst we see Belfort’s cronies suffer is being dragged under arrest from their plush townhouses and office suites, blubbering like babies deprived of their toys. Forget proportional retribution. While under arrest, Jordan Belfort gets to languish in his mansion. In prison, he can buy all the comforts of home, and more.
Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese fashioned a remarkably adroit film from Jordan Belfort’s own memoir. The disc extras emphasize that this was an actor-initiated project, with star Leonardo DiCaprio seizing onto a character he wanted to play. Jordan Belfort is a morally bankrupt Horatio Alger, a hard charger against whose megalomania the fictional Gordon Gekko seems a nickel & dime piker. Belfort is adept at convincing strangers over the phone that they have a need only he can fill, right now, by signing all their money into his care. They’re buying an illusion of future wealth but the only gain is reserved for the salesman. Jordan intuits that his piracy is unlimited because the supply of investor-suckers is endless.
In 1987, young Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) wins a job with prestigious stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), eager to get rich but also to become part of the elitist-profane-arrogant image that Hanna projects. But Belfort’s first day of work coincides with that year’s big Wall Street meltdown and the brokerage goes out of business. Jordan ironically finds his deliverance in a dispiritingly low rent, borderline incompetent penny stocks clearing house on Long Island. Energized by the notion that penny stock salesmen earn a hefty percentage rather than a tiny commission, Jordan soon builds his own fraudulent boiler room sales operation, inspiring fellow hungry, greedy sales people with his excellent phone sales technique. The lie is that a service is being provided: the scam empties customers’ bank accounts like a vacuum cleaner. Jordan recruits and trains unemployed friends for his new firm, which soon occupies a pricey office. They become a full-on stockbroking operation by taking a shoe company public, yet continue to ignore basic business rules that give investors at least some safeguards.
The profits are so high that Belfort, his cronies and his high-sellers become Lords of consumerism, buying everything world-class — houses, cars, yachts. Along with the excitement and excess comes all manner of drug abuse and petty vice. Belfort’s marriage blows up over a flagrant infidelity, but he trades up to the fabulously sexy and equally ambitious Naomi (Margot Robbie), who bears him a daughter. The company attracts notoriety through its outrageous sales floor parties that become orgies, and Jordan’s egregious Bad Boy behaviors.
Goodfellas’ Henry Hill was backhandedly apologetic about his life of crime and excess: ‘Yeah I was rotten but boy was it fun while it lasted.’ As depicted by Scorsese, Jordan Belfort is oblivious to general notions of human responsibility. Nothing slows down his abuse of the system. All that drug-fueled driving could have killed people, even his own daughter. Rescue workers die responding to an emergency caused by Jordan’s refusal to take simple safety advice — delaying an ocean cruise because of a storm warning would be inconvenient. He’s the King and nobody better touch his money or his privileges.
The screenplay lends thematic shape to this wild ride of theft and debauchery: brought to heel by the Securities and Exchange Commission Belfort has agreed to step away from the industry entirely. In his farewell speech to his company’s troops, he becomes fired up by his own greedy, criminal rhetoric, and changes his mind. He reneges on his deal with the Feds — a decision that brings down the full weight of the FBI.
The Wolf of Wall Street is thrilling and exhausting, sort of a cautionary Aesop’s Fable for us straights that earn our living and don’t target our neigbors as potential victims. It’s not the kind of story that can be soft-pedalled: Scorsese wouldn’t sign on until a deal came with total authority to film all the cocaine, sex and arrogance in Belfort’s book as graphically as he saw fit. The film reportedly broke a record for the number of uses of the word fuck; if that word isn’t already part of your habitual vocabulary, by the end of this show it may be.
Scorsese’s direction is efficient, unfussy and focused. He doesn’t strain for show-offy signature moments, but instead goes straight for the outrageous truth, with an emphasis on the glamorous trimmings. Belfort’s narration enables the show to jump into montage mode to skip forward in time; I guess that the film covers the 1990s and stalls out a few years into the new century. A few narrative tricks work extremely well, as when Belfort creeps home in his sports car even though he’s so grossly over-drugged that he must crawl across the parking lot. But the careful, miraculous safe drive we see is contradicted by what he learns when he wakes up.
Scorsese also pulls off a very successful CGI effects scene, something he didn’t do well in pictures like his The Aviator (also wth DiCaprio). Belfort’s yacht runs into a monster storm, and we welcome the sight of the gigantic waves smashing into it. Either the oversized scale fits everything else in this bigger-than-life story, or an ocean disaster is the perfect action break from the intense drama.
Not a moment of this three-hour epic even begins to sag. The impressively cast & sharply drawn characters are exactingly performed. We’re told that much of what we see came through cast improvisations, although the editing boiled most of the additions back down to near- screenplay levels.
Jon Bernthal, P.J. Byrne, Chester Ming and others form Jordan’s inner circle of greedy vermin, with Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff taking the top slot as the most crass and idiotic. A painfully hilarious, very Scorsese bit of insanity sees Hill’s Donnie Azoff blowing a simple cash hand-off over a personal spat, and sending a partner to jail. The real question is why all those drugs don’t send Belfort and his cronies straight to the morgue. Donnie is always flying, out of control. His and Jordan’s unforgivable behavior on a commercial airliner seems all the more heinous now, what with anti-vax, anti-mask hooligans raising hell on flights. They’re so disgustingly abusive, we’d happily grant the air crew license to shove them out the back door.
Jordan’s second wife Naomi is too smart to be considered a trophy catch; she initially seems sensitive but soon proves capable of repaying in kind the abuse she takes from her worthless Rajah of a husband. Sheer proximity to Jordan requires that Naomi get tough, if only to protect her daughter. Naomi is no scheming Borgia, even though we suspect as much when she nominates her socialite Aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) to help Jordan hide his taxable cash by putting it in a Swiss bank, under Aunt Emma’s name.
The big-money arena appears to be wholly patriarchal, a Boy’s Club. Most of the women we see are objects to be used, like the party girl who allows her hair to be shaved off, proving that people will do anything for money. Jordan would call himself virtuous for waxing sentimental over a token lady stockbroker who worships him for making her rich, like everyone else in the sales pool. The wives of these cheating stockbrokers live in denial of possible legal ‘complications,’ even if Naomi takes care to personally do nothing illegal. The wife of key partner Brad (Jon Bernthal), and in fact his whole family, allow themselves to become money-carriers to Switzerland, with huge sums taped to their bodies. This obviously predates minimal airport security.
An exception to the rampant denial is the classy Aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley), who in one brief scene shows that she’s capable of empathizing with the impatient, calculating and always-buzzed Jordan. We keep waiting for Emma to spring a trap over that hidden cash. The Swiss banker that safeguards Jordan’s ill-gotten lucre is Jean Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin of The Artist). As Saurel fields Jordan, Donnie and Nicky’s’ newbie questions about Swiss banking rules, we wonder how quickly he will find a way to steal all their money. Crime fantasies prime us to expect that kind of story twist.
When one is as rich as Jordan Belfort crime and punishment are relative terms. Years pass as the government makes its case. Jordan’s lawyer Manny Riskin (Jon Favreau) presumably counters with evasive maneuvers; by the time things are really bad Jordan’s lawyer is the surrender-faced Nolan Drager (Robert Clohessy of TV’s Blue Bloods). Belfort’s ‘Petrovich’- like FBI nemesis is Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). Our only privileged moment with him is his lonely trip home on the subway. Although Denham works hard to bring Jordan down there’s nothing in it for him personally — fighting white collar slime doesn’t feel very ennobling.
Wolf makes a joke of the belief in a Level Playing Field in an Economically Classless American Society. Jordan Belfort considers himself a ‘self-made man’ and his ostentatious wealth allows him to ignore arguments to the contrary. And he always has some form of family and peer support. His accountant father Max (Rob Reiner) disapproves of his lifestyle, but never enough to cut family ties. Jordan’s sales group worships him as a great provider guru. And Belfort is not a weakling or a cardboard villain. His self-assurance and charisma never fails him — even when he’s reduced to giving tacky seminars on sales techniques. The scary thing is that he never misreads his customers: his nasty, predatory vision of life is never proved invalid. One of the final images is of an eager, attentive paying seminar crowd that hangs on his every word. They sit in rows, waiting for the Belfort magic that will admit them to the promised land of wealth and luxury.
Wolf wisely doesn’t tack on an easy moral, as did Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. I’m sure that as many viewers revel in Jordan Belfort’s outrageous behavior as deplore it. New Gekkos and Belforts are born every minute. The show disturbs this viewer, and it’s scary to know that much of the audience accepts Belfort’s values as Business as Usual.
Paramount Home Video’s 4K Ultra- HD + Digital of The Wolf of Wall Street is clean and spotless, three solid hours of perfect 4K imagery. In a theater, my bladder would be wanting an Intermission, I’m sure. The attractive visuals don’t reach for a lot of artistic stylization.We can appreciate the 4K edge better when the show cuts to footage supposedly from 1990s television — the simulated NTSC looks as if it were filmed through a cheese grater. After a scene or two in an ordinary apartment and at the penny-stock strip mall phone center, every location we see is expensive, privileged ground where one’s presence needs to be justified, and where staff and servants do all the cleaning up.
Remember the ’80s TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?” — most of Scorsese’s locations resemble that “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” lifestyle, substituting vice for champagne and drugs for caviar. The glamour is indeed eye-catching — the clothes, the cars, that yacht with Jordan’s personal helicopter on top. Even more seductive is Naomi’s warm yet sharklike smile, which promises everything men are conditioned to want in life.
The presentation is accompanied by three excellent promotional featurettes, an overview piece, a nicely-judged view of how the show came together, and a discussion piece.
Written with assistance from correspondent ‘B.’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Wolf of Wall Street
4K Ultra- HD + Digital rates:
Movie: Excellent but depressing?
Supplements: Three featurettes: The Wolf Pack, Running Wild and The Wolf of Wall Street Round Table.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc with digital code in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: December 12, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson