‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ a grand, triumphant rebuke of financial excess, and the best Scorsese-DiCaprio collaboration to date
Written by Terence Winter
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Leonardo DiCaprio is a year away from 40, though he still retains the same boyish air and enthusiasm that marked him from Titanic onward. But over the intervening 16 years, he’s thinned down enough that he has a leaner, tighter, more constricted face that can, in the right role, represent someone who’s downright nasty. Jordan Belfort, a real-life stock brokerage owner who went to prison for fraud in the 1990s, is the right role for DiCaprio’s dark side to once again be unleashed. And The Wolf of Wall Street, based on Belfort’s book of the same name, is the right movie, a scabrous, manic, deliberately excessive, terrifying, and hilarious film, and possibly the best collaboration between DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese to date.
In the mid-1980s, Jordan Belfort went to Wall Street to become a stock broker, starting at a lowly position in a tony brokerage where he’s mentored by the gleefully amoral, coke-sniffing, chest-thumping top dog Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, brief but brilliant) until Black Monday hits in October 1987. Soon enough, Jordan moves on from that failure and finds himself working in a small Long Island firm dedicated to penny stocks, which are so ultra-cheap that they aren’t even sold directly on Wall Street, just to the non-rich across the country who don’t know any better. He hits upon a way to fool the richest of the rich to fork over their cash to get shares of these small-time stocks, thus making even larger commissions, for himself and his fellow brokers, including his close friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill sporting some intentionally, garishly big white teeth). More money means more of everything, from hookers to Quaaludes to dwarf-tossing to cocaine to yachts to hookers to Quaaludes, and on and on and on. For a long time, Belfort and his firm, Stratton Oakmont, go unchecked; eventually, as would be expected (and possibly demanded by audiences living in the midst of a recession like this one), Belfort spirals out of control and is hunted down by a dogged, straight-arrow FBI agent (Kyle Chandler, always a delight to see).
Plot aside, The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours of wall-to-wall insanity. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter (late of The Sopranos and now the creator of Boardwalk Empire) don’t force their way into separating fact from fiction, so it’s not easy to tell which of Belfort’s many bacchanalian exploits are or aren’t real. By sheer will and force throughout, though, it doesn’t matter. Scorsese, the best living American filmmaker, has not lost his ability to tell an extended story with a propulsive, nearly frantic pacing; this film, his longest fictional feature, stands as a full-length testament to Roger Ebert’s argument that no good movie is long enough. As much as Scorsese is damning Jordan Belfort and his many Neanderthal-esque cohorts with The Wolf of Wall Street, he makes their sociopathic, shady dealings so purely entertaining that a longer cut actually sounds appealing. Part of why the film works so well is that it’s packed to the gills with outstanding sequences, at least one of which should be considered an all-timer, both for Scorsese and DiCaprio. For the latter, it is a perfect example of his range: Jordan and Donnie try to celebrate the success of stockpiling their ill-gotten gains in a Swiss bank by ingesting a rare brand of Quaaludes to outrageously disastrous effect. Of all people to be adept at physical comedy, DiCaprio may be low on the list, but his fierce and fearless commitment to the part shines through in even this scene, as both men regress to a state of near-infancy. For Scorsese, the sequence is an all-time comic high, possibly the funniest (and meanest) single scene he’s ever directed.
Also, the scene stands out because it does not allow Jordan Belfort to cut any kind of heroic figure, no matter what some audience members may choose to believe in cheering on his louche frat-boy antics. In the sequence, Belfort drives his Lamborghini (one of many sports cars seen in the film, such as his Ferrari–it’s white, not red, as specified early in the frequent, clever, and often unreliable voiceover narration) from a nearby country club to his house while under the wholly debilitating influence of ‘ludes. When he arrives home, he’s thankful to have not scratched the car or gotten hurt despite being so comically impaired. Ah, but then, a few hours later, the cops arrive and it turns out Jordan was lying to himself and us: the car’s badly damaged, because of course it is. How could it not be? In these moments, and in his intense, vicious arguments with his beautiful second wife (Margot Robbie, who matches DiCaprio beat for beat in these confrontations), Belfort is further revealed as, in short, a truly awful human being. Somehow, under the auspices of doing business, Belfort’s infinite avarice and selfishness is maybe a little more expected, if not excused. When Jordan has to interact with the real world, when he can’t sell his way out of a bind, the film is at its angriest and most righteous. (The same goes for the first time Belfort comes face to face with Chandler’s fed, a long scene on the former’s yacht that starts bad for him and ends even worse.)
On the surface, The Wolf of Wall Street could be a bawdy, extremely raunchy celebration of American excess, the pinnacle of bad behavior. Barely below that surface, however, is a commentary on the limits of that very excess, and how necessary it is for our society to have some form of checks and balances. Because the film is from Belfort’s point of view, presuming it endorses his attitude isn’t entirely outlandish. (And the way the narration, which sometimes bleeds into DiCaprio as Belfort breaking the fourth wall and facing the audience, is structured may present the notion that The Wolf of Wall Street, the movie, is a blank slate upon which Belfort will write, revise, and present his story to his satisfaction.) But it would be wrong to presume that Martin Scorsese has trod this exact ground before, in films such as Goodfellas and Casino and Gangs of New York.
No doubt, Scorsese is fascinated to the point of obsession with the nature of crime, the desire so many people have to break the law for their own good. Jordan Belfort is one of the most odious criminals he’s depicted in his many decades as a filmmaker, to the point that, in a number of lengthier diatribe-like monologues to his brokers, Belfort is presented as not an antihero, but a full-fledged villain. That may be Scorsese’s best trick in the film: fooling its subject to sign away his life’s rights only to be subtly damned on the silver screen. The Wolf of Wall Street is a grand, triumphant depiction of the entitled, near-insane proclivities of the super-rich and those who wish to be among the super-rich. But at all times, it’s exhorting us, the non-super-rich, to get mad once more at the financial institutions built to bilk us out of our cash, to be furious with the people who look at the middle class and the sober and find them wanting. It’s been a long time since a Martin Scorsese film felt so angry; anger never felt or looked so damn good.
– Josh Spiegel