While Wall Street and organized crime are similar in some ways – they both feature sociopaths seeking profit at the expense of morality, for example – they differ in one important aspect…
There are far more great movies about organized crime than there are about finance.
So I was especially curious when one of the world’s top directors – and the force behind arguably the best movie of all-time about organized crime – turned his attention to Wall Street.
Would it top Goodfellas? Raging Bull? Taxi Driver?
Come on, would it at least be better than Shutter Island?
And on the “finance movie” side, would a new champion emerge to displace the old favorites of Wall Street, Boiler Room, and Glengarry Glen Ross (and, more recently, Margin Call and Arbitrage)?
I had no idea, but I wanted to find out – and I enjoy a good helping of drugs, hookers, and midget tossing – so I decided to indulge and go see The Wolf of Wall Street.
Biases and Blind Spots
You might think that since I created this site and another site that has “Wall Street” in the title, I would be a huge fan of finance-related movies.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sure, I’ve seen my fair share of the classics – but I like serialized TV shows way more than movies, and I’d much rather watch dragons, drug dealers, or Don Draper than Gordon Gekko any day of the week.
And I might just be the only person in the universe who wasn’t madly in love with Margin Call: I found it rather slow-paced since it wasn’t exactly a documentary, but it also wasn’t exactly filled with interpersonal drama and exciting moments.
So I went in with no expectations, especially considering the mixed reviews.
Some of This Actually Happened
In case you’ve been living in a cave, The Wolf of Wall Street is the cinematic version of Jordan Belfort’s real-life story: he started a penny stock boiler room called “Stratton Oakmont” in the 1990s, which was the inspiration for the original Boiler Room in 2000.
After cheating investors out of $200 million, he was indicted for securities fraud and money laundering in 1998, after which he went to prison, wrote about his story and… eventually became a motivational speaker (this only happens in America).
So the plot of the movie is not particularly surprising or innovative: it’s the classic rise-and-fall story of a poor kid who aspires to be wealthy, ends up doing illegal things to get there, and comes crashing down to hubris in the end.
It felt more like Goodfellas with white collar crime and comedy rather than a traditional “finance film.”
Much of the criticism has come in the form of:
This is terrible, why are you encouraging this behavior? Who really needs to be reminded of all the evil people and scandals in the finance industry?”
These critics miss the point: it’s not supposed to be a deep, philosophical drama that makes a serious statement about the morality of Belfort’s shenanigans.
It’s a dark comedy, and you should not go in expecting to gain new insights into human nature.
We know greed is good, we know that people do crazy things in pursuit of money, and we’ve known that since the dawn of mankind – or at least since the original Wall Street in 1987.
Since you won’t be surprised by the story itself, it’s worth discussing other aspects of the film.
The acting, for the most part, is excellent – but you’d expect that, given the number of A-list actors in lead and supporting roles.
Leonardo DiCaprio hasn’t done much slapstick comedy before, but he pulls it off quite well here. He doesn’t deliver anything quite as memorable as the “Greed is Good” or “Coffee is for Closers” speeches, but 1 or 2 monologues come close.
He’ll most likely be nominated in the “Best Actor” category for his role here, but I doubt he’ll win.
Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s #2, was a bit too over-the-top for me… but it works well in a few scenes, including the comedic high-point of the movie (which is both hilarious and horrifying).
Some of the minor roles feature the best acting: Matthew McConaughey as Jordan Belfort’s mentor in the beginning, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s father, and Jean Dujardin as a Swiss banker of questionable morality.
As you might expect from any Wall Street-related movie, there are, unfortunately, almost no substantial roles for females.
Margot Robbie delivers a solid performance as Belfort’s (second) wife, but most of the other females here are strippers, hookers, or some combination thereof.
That’s a disappointment, because there were several female brokers at Belfort’s firm that could have been explored in more depth and in meatier roles.
Directing, Editing, Cinematography, Music, and More
In a few reviews, critics mentioned that the movie was “too long” (3 hours) or that more material should have been cut.
There are a few parts that drag (once we’ve seen 3 orgy scenes, we get the idea – no need to keep the 4th one in), but it didn’t feel like a 3-hour long movie to me.
And you can’t argue with Scorsese’s directing prowess – at age 71, he’s still at the top of his game and the shots are all well-crafted.
Visually, it’s a spectacle: for a story about white collar crime, it’s amazing how varied the locations and scenery are.
The soundtrack fits most of the scenes quite well, though it doesn’t stand out or enthrall you with its originality.
The main issue is that the editing clearly suffered from a rushed production process (the movie had to be released by the end of 2013 for Oscar contention).
Individual scenes can seem a bit “jumbled,” a few transitions are unclear, and another pass through the editing room would have benefited the film.
It would have been difficult to cut 1 hour of material, but 20-30 minutes definitely could have been trimmed.
And then there are a few noticeable continuity errors, but hey, film directors can’t possibly be as attentive to detail as bankers, so we’ll forgive them on that count.
Will You Learn Anything About the Finance Industry by Watching This?
In short, no.
Do not go in expecting to gain new insight into stocks, bonds, technical analysis, or even the details of how a pump-and-dump operation works.
In one scene, DiCaprio starts to explain how an IPO works and then he stops midway through and says:
“You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. What matters is that we’re going to make a ridiculous amount of money.”
So if you do want to learn how IPOs actually work, you should probably stick to our explanations on this site instead.
Your Strengths and Weaknesses…
The greatest strength of the movie is its comedic prowess.
Traditionally, neither Scorsese nor DiCaprio have been known for comedy, but they pull it off with spectacular effect here.
You just have to be twisted enough to laugh at drug-induced life-or-death situations (yes, I have some issues).
So if you go in expecting a dark comedy rather than a serious drama – and you have 3 hours to spare – you won’t be disappointed.
The film’s greatest weakness is that it doesn’t tell you anything new about the finance industry or the “greed is good” mentality.
It’s more an amalgamation of previous organized crime and finance films than something daring and inventive.
And while the 3 hours of the movie didn’t exactly “drag,” it could have been cut shorter by 20-30 minutes with no adverse effect.
Whither the Wolf?
So, is The Wolf of Wall Street the best finance movie of all-time?
No, not by a long shot.
But it makes a strong case for being the funniest finance movie of the past few decades.
If you want the most culturally impactful movie, you’ve got to go with the original Wall Street from 1987.
If you want hard-hitting insight and real education, see Inside Job.
And if you want the most “realistic” non-documentary film, see Margin Call (or Cost of Capital – yes, I had to plug it here).
But if you want to be entertained, you can’t go wrong with The Wolf.
It’s a toss-up as to whether or not this one’s funnier than Trading Places, but you can’t go wrong by checking out anyway.
Especially if you’re a fan of midget tossing, excessive drug use, or any other artifact from the holiday parties of ancient times that no longer exists in the post-financial crisis world.