The Wolf of Wall Street: The Best Movie About Finance Since the Original Wall Street?

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Wolf of Wall StreetWhile 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.

Acting

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.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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29 Comments to “The Wolf of Wall Street: The Best Movie About Finance Since the Original Wall Street?”

Comments

    • says

      I don’t know if I could make a top 10 list because I wasn’t a huge fan of that many of them – the ones mentioned in the article would probably be in my top 5ish list, though.

  1. Jabroni says

    I thought Wolf of Wallstreet was a pretty good comedy movie but had little material on actual finance, mostly sales skills (which imho is applicable to any field).

    Personally Brian I hated Margin Call. The movie left a bad taste in my mouth because the story felt extremely linear and flat. I thought the list of actors could have had more room to shine (especially Kevin Spacey) and the story was very zzzz.

    • says

      Hah, I’m glad we agree on that one. Whenever I tell people I wasn’t a huge fan, they look at me like I’m crazy and say, “WTF! Margin Call was the best finance movie ever!” and I guess I just don’t get it.

  2. Shep says

    I’m torn whether or not I want to see the movie because of how easy Belfort got off for his crimes, how much he is benefiting from the movie, and the fact that he stopped paying his restitution payments in full starting in 2010. Did that bother you at all?

  3. Alexander says

    Hi Brian,

    I know it’s off topic but I really need advice from someone like you.
    I’m attending highschool in Australia and will graduate next year. Given that I’m an international student and don’t particulary enjoy Australia, I wouldn’t do uni here unless it’s my only option. Therefore, I wanted to ask how valuable is a LSE accounting and finance degree in regards to getting a job into BB banks in the UK/USA and what is your opinion on the other undergrad degrees offered by other UK universities, and how easy is it to land in job in the US coming from an UK university?

    PS: It would most likely be easier for me to get into Oxbridge or other top unis in the UK than into LSE considering the entry requirements of each regarding Australia. However, some unis (Oxbridge included) don’t even offer finance related degrees.

    Thank you!!

    • says

      UK degrees are more useful in the UK, it is difficult to work in the US unless you’re a citizen due to the labor laws here. So I would focus on one or the other, but not both regions.

      LSE is fine but I think it’s better-known for the Master’s programs offered there. If you do a search for “UK” or “London” here you’ll see a few interviews with readers who offered tips on recruiting in the UK and what degrees might be useful.

  4. Alexander says

    Thanks for the advice. In this case, I will be looking for US universities as well. However, I have a concern regarding this. I cannot sit the SAT subject tests orher than the maths one, as I wouldn’t be able to achieve high, due to my subject selection. I cannot do the science one because I’m only doing Chemistry (no physics and biology) and I’m not doing any humanities subjects (global politics, geography, history). Most of the top unis in the US expect more than one subject test and I’m concerned I wouldn’t be qualified enough for admission.
    What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think that I can still get an offer considering my stellar accounting and economics grades? (also, I’m currently doing an University accounting course with a top university in melbourne and I’m at the top of the class).

    Thanks again and hope to hear from you soon!!

    • says

      Yes, that is an issue but the SAT 2 tests are not that hard from what I remember (OK, I took them ~10-15 years ago so not sure how accurate that is anymore). So if you feel confident you can study enough to prepare for those on your own, you can do it – otherwise, I’m not sure if they would go for a lack of SAT 2 scores unless you took the ACT exam instead.

  5. Alexander says

    Thanks a lot Brian; you most likely helped me, through these two replies, more than my school’s career counselor did in an entire year :)

    I have one last question though. Is it possible to get an internship at a US BB coming from a UK target uni? If not, what are my chances of getting an analyst position in there given the context?

    Thanks for taking the time to support me!!

    • says

      Sure thing. Yes, it’s theoretically possible to get an internship at a large bank in the US coming from the UK, but it’s pretty hard unless you can easily go back and forth for networking purposes… so not exactly the most practical approach unless you can actually do that. The best idea is to study abroad in the US, complete an internship there, and turn that into a full-time offer.

  6. Paul says

    Thanks for the movie review. I had considered watching the movie in theaters but your comments have convinced me to wait for the Blu-Ray. I have to say that I’m with you on Margin Call and I share your enthusiasm for dragons. But what’s going on with Cost of Capital? My brother and I watched all the episodes in one sitting and we’re dying for season two to release. Do you have any news for future episode releases?

  7. Rohan says

    Shaving of the head of that chick was a bit sexist.Too much use of f-words , guess its done to make it real but it was over done.Apart from that its a decent watch

  8. KM says

    Hey Brian

    Nice review, I literally laughed a lot through the film. I’d say it felt more like Scorsese and DiCaprio first wanted to do a comedy and the story of Belfort just happened to fit well.
    The inside job I’d say it’s decent but at the end it left me with a bad taste, it seemed like coming from OWS crowd not someone genuinely interested in (and criticise) the financial industry. Margin Call was better/more objective IMO but yeah quite linear/slow..

    • says

      Thanks! Yeah, I agree with you on all of that.

      The problem with Inside Job is that it was very one-sided… it’s not like finance people are just evil and want to destroy the planet, decades of poor policy decisions and other recklessness preceded the crisis… so it’s not as simple as singling out one group responsible for everything. If Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hadn’t existed, the crisis might not have even happened.

  9. unknown says

    Dear M&I,
    Another great article!

    I just had one question to ask and decided to post it here.

    I interned at a local M&A boutique over the last summer, and is now facing the following situation. I’m going to a final-round interview with a research department at a BB tomorrow. The thing is, this is an off-cycle one, which means I have to drop out of school for the spring semester. Also, this is not offer-based.

    I’d love to take this opportunity if bankers at IBD see this research experience relevant to what they do (i.e. the internship turns out to be helpful for breaking into an IBD in the future). Dropping out of school for one semester doesn’t really matter for me if this is the case.

    What would you say about this?

    • says

      I would be reluctant to drop out of school for a semester just to do this – I would only do it if you don’t have any better options for summer internships lined up and you really need to do a spring internship instead.

      Generally, summer internships matter a lot more than these off-cycle school-year internships… so I would only do this if you don’t seem likely to get a summer internship in banking, ER, or even something like asset management.

  10. says

    Great review Brian,

    It looks to me that Terence Winter (screenwriter of WoWS) focused more in the amazing selling skills of Jordan Belfort than any financial topic.
    They went, of course, for the big audience. I think it’s a win for them. Very entertaining indeed!

  11. Joel D says

    Hey Brian,

    Like somebody mentioned above, I think that ‘Margin Call’ was really awful. There were no ‘actual’ numbers being quoted, just people looking at the screen, getting terrified and abusing themselves. And then there’s the Jeremy Irons’ scene that really made me laugh :D He said something about golden retriever, the music is about to stop etc. etc. I think it must have been some kind of a spoof. Wall Street 1&2 and Boiler room were terrific.

    • says

      Thanks! I am glad to find out I’m not actually insane. That one scene at the end was good, but everything before that seemed like people running around and telling other people that the world was going to explode, without the actual explosion taking place.

  12. Gabriel says

    Hey Brian I just caught this show and it literally blew my mind! I mean as far as directors go I’m not a super fan of Scorsese. I though shutter island was decent at best. I didn’t even like raging bull or goodfellas that much. So like you I went in with no expectations.

    It was ridiculously funny and so over the top. I couldn’t believe it when you said it was based on a true story. Is it like 10% true or something? Surely they don’t throw midgets or have open sex in offices in real life? I think this is my fav. movie in a long long time. Probably since Lincoln lawyer.

    And I disagree with most people in that I though margin call was really good as well. Completely different style but one that people in finance could relate to more as well. I just don’t know of Wolf can be even considered a finance movie, feels so much more like a normal movie to me. Anyway if so, this is my top ranked finance movie of all time. And ps I think both this and margin call are better than the original Wall Street (wall street 2 was crap).

    Great review!

    • says

      Thanks! Yeah, we’ll have to agree to disagree on Margin Call.

      I think Wolf of Wall Street was mostly true, or at least most of the ridiculous things in there actually happened. I haven’t read the book so can’t say for sure, but yes, things that crazy really did happen in the office.

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