David Pearce’s review published on Letterboxd:
"I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich."
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that should have been re-written early on. The way the story is told and the perspective of the narrative seems to shift dramatically between scenes. This makes for a film that's great in parts but as a 3 hour biopic, lacks coherence. While featuring entertaining individual scenes and a very interesting story, The Wolf of Wall Street lacks the quality and polish I not only expect from Martin Scorsese, but any mainstream director.
I don't want to place the blame on one man, especially seeing as his screenplay has been nominated for an academy award, but I feel a lot of the issues with this film lie in Terence Winter's adaptation of Jordan Belfort's novel. I have not read the book, but I would assume that Jordan Belfort, being the egotistical man that he is, would write from his own perspective. The issue that plagues the film in my opinion is a lack of commitment in telling the story from Belfort's perspective. The scene that's attracted a lot of attention that I feel is the worst offender of this is where Belfort is attempting to crawl to his car in a drugged stupor. The scene begins as an observer, watching a very intoxicated man collapse to the floor and attempting to crawl outside. The most effective part of this scene is watching Belfort in an extremely vulnerable position, with a camera faced down on him it's clear that we're supposed to view him as a pathetic man. When he reaches the stairs, all of a sudden we get a shot from his perspective, that greatly exaggerates the length of the stairs. That's kind of odd. We begin the scene as an observer, but then as it progresses we're looking through his eyes. Jump forward in the scene and he's in his car, driving very safely without a scratch. Jump to the next scene and Belfort is being arrested for crashing his car, and as Belfort realises that he was actually driving dangerously, so do the audience, as if the scene was shot from his perspective. I would argue the same narrative mistake was made throughout the film, in the form of Belfort's narration. At some points it sounds as though he's giving a speech, at some points it's just internal monologue, sometimes he's just thinking to himself, and in a couple of rare scenes he's literally taking directly to the audience. It's as though they didn't decide how they wanted to tell the story. Obviously in later scenes like the rape scene, the audience would feel gross watching that from Belfort's twisted perspective, so at that point we're an observer. Yet in very early scenes when Belfort grows intoxicated there are not-so-subtle wavy effects on the camera, as though we're now looking at the world from his perspective. Telling a story from multiple characters perspectives can work, obvious example would be Pulp Fiction. Where it doesn't work in The Wolf of Wall Street is that there's no signifier that we've shifted views. We never know whether we're viewing the world through the twisted eyes of Belfort, or merely watching the twisted world of Belfort. Not being able to distinct between the two can muddle the narrative, characters motivations and, in a sense, the whole reality the film is attempting to create.
Even more so it messes with the tone, which is another great issue I had with this film. When Belfort was directly addressing the audience or boasting about his tremendous wealth, everything was jolly and it felt like a kids show. I actually really like this because we get the juxtaposition between the way he views his 'picture perfect world' and then the vulgar gross reality of it on screen. Obviously when we watch a scene like the drug addled crawl to the car, just watching him do that is rather disturbing and is supposed to bring the film back to reality. There's no juxtaposition in these scenes, we're simply given a depressing situation or imagery and have to deal with that. I also really like those scenes because it brings a cold sense of reality to the film which reminds me of earlier Scorsese films. The trouble with all of what I just said is how it meshes together as one coherent film. Cutting from a scene where Belfort is all jolly and child-like, straight to a scene of him nearly overdosing, can be very jarring and shocking, but Scorsese never really brings it to that level. The film reaches different dramatics in tone, but lacks massive tonal shifts that I thought could have put the events of the film into perspective very well. Of course a massive shift in tone is not something that I'd usually praise in a film, but the story of a man that's dillusional of how twisted his life is in The Wolf of Wall Street could have really used a very abrupt shift in tone to shock the audience. Instead I feel everything's eased into and nothing catches me by surprise. Even the "shocking" scene where Belfort is crawling to the car was built up by a load of depressing mundane scenes, which meant watching him in his drugged up state wasn't as shocking as if it were to of happen the scene after he's jolly and child-like.
What aids the film the most is the lead performances. Martin Scorsese is a director that's known for telling compelling stories with harsh visuals, but above all else he's known as an actor's director. Behind De Niro he's most know for his collaborative work with Leonardo DiCaprio. Having said that, this is the first film I've scene that feature the two of them working together. So I'm just going off my limited experience with DiCaprio when I say this is the best performance I've ever seen him deliver. DiCaprio is not an actor I would say I'm a fan of, and this film does feature some of his trademark yelling, but when it comes down to it, he was Jordan Belfort. In the early scenes you can see the enthusiasm in his eyes and in the later scenes you can see that enthusiasm robbed of him. It felt like DiCaprio really understand the character inside and out, to the extent that his performance felt extremely genuine. I wish I could say as kind of words for his co-star Jonah Hill, but I felt he was tragically miscast in this film. Again, Jonah Hill is not an actor I'd say I'm a fan of, but at least DiCaprio has the talent to win me over. Jonah Hill's performance was so one-note throughout this entire film that it was almost an insult to the other great actors, considering how much time Hill was given on screen. My favourite scenes in the film can be boiled down to just two people sat across from each other. The scenes that DiCaprio shared with Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner and Kyle Chandler were all my favourite scenes in the film because it just put two actors against each other, to simply act. Other scenes are more dramatic or maybe larger in scale, but I felt I learnt more about DiCaprio's character and his relationship with authority in those three scenes. To mention larger in scale, possibly the most commendable feat of this film is just the massive quantity of extras that were cast. Just scroll down the extended-cast page on imdb and you will see the numbers a biblical. I felt the number of extras brought a lot to the film, adding drama to a scene where it's needed and most of all making all the business scenes look really hectic.
I have a very mixed relationship with The Wolf of Wall Street.
While I feel the story and some of the technicalities of the film are beneath Martin Scorsese, to the extent that this is nearly an embarrassment on his behalf, I feel Leonardo DiCaprio delivered the most important element in a character drama, and that's the lead character. By no means do I feel DiCaprio carried the film on his own, a lot of his performance can be attributed to some wonderful dialogue writing and of course the legendary direction of Martin Scorsese, but I do feel this would not have been a positive score without him. I can say I recommend this film because it's entertaining enough to be worth a watch, but I'm not sure it's the best film that's out right now.