Martin Scorsese’s searing epic of greed and debauchery is… well, it’s not for everyone.
When you sail on a boat fit for a Bond villain, sometimes you need to play the part, right?
The Wolf of Wall Street is a film about despicable people doing despicable things, and the film’s protagonist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), is the worst of them all. He lies, cheats, steals, bribes, drinks, does ALL the drugs, cheats on his wives, crashes vehicles, commits assault, and creates a grotesque environment where all of those things are not only tolerated — they’re celebrated.
Based on the memoir of the real Jordan Belfort, a broker who rose from selling the working class penny stocks to having more money than he knew what to do with, the film tosses us into the deep end of this cesspool from the opening frames, and stays there. It’s the most uncomfortably entertaining work of art since The Book of Mormon: brash, equal-opportunity offensive, and frequently horrifying.
But Jordan is not just the main character — he’s the narrator. This is his life story, full of hyperbole and flash, breaking the fourth wall and even correcting himself on the smaller details as they unfold on the screen. (“No, it was a WHITE Ferrari!”) And so, because the film is told from his direct point of view, we only get the information he deems important for his audience to know. On more than one occasion he interrupts explaining his extralegal machinations to say “Never mind, I know you don’t understand what I’m saying right now.” All that matters is how incredibly filthy rich he’s getting, and how much he’s enjoying it. Indeed, much of the film is scene after scene of just how much, while the plot is only laid out in broad strokes.
Belfort comes to Wall Street bright-eyed and naive, assuming that it was still his job to actually put money in the pockets of his clients. His first boss and mentor (a bonkers Matthew McConaughey) tells him quite the opposite: the deeper you get your customers to invest, the longer you keep that ferris wheel spinning, the more money you’ll make. That pronouncement, coupled with the friendly recommendation to do — among other things — as much cocaine as possible (“Keeps you clear between the ears”), is enough to change the course of Belfort’s life.
After the Black Monday crash of 1987 he has to start fresh, but even at the age of 26 Belfort is a remarkably gifted salesman, and he builds his own company out of a crew of likeminded degenerates. A few years and bigger offices later, the firm of Stratton Oakmont employs hundreds, makes millions daily, and is a festering, wretched hive of scum and villainy. Dwarfs are tossed, strippers are paraded, and Belfort and his inner circle get enough of a drug high to power a small country. One of these slimeballs, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, sporting horn rims and unsettlingly white teeth) quit his job long ago to work with Belfort, and is now his right-hand man. The two pop qualuudes together, to frighteningly hilarious effect.
To his troops, Belfort is something of a god. Every day he paces the stage at the front of the room, loudly inspiring them — veins pulsing — to “greatness,” which in this business is ramming awful stocks down the throats of the 1% and pocketing giant commissions. They eat it up. They really, truly love him, and he “loves” them. What’s a $25,000 check to pay for the hospital bills of a new employee’s child, when he has enough hundreds lying around in wads to throw them out the window for a cheap laugh? But eventually the hangover has to kick in, in the form of a straight-arrow FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who starts sniffing around the firm looking to bring Belfort down.
The screenplay, by Terence Winter, is packed with incident (if not plot), and the three hours fly by — seriously. There isn’t a single dull second in this film, and a large share of the credit has to go to master editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who diligently cut this thing down from its original run time of FOUR hours to the tightly-calibrated sizzler we see here. Some of the more kinetic sequences — an extended bit of physical comedy where DiCaprio is stoned out of his gourd on ‘luudes is a riot — are flat-out brilliantly paced and cut, and even the long, seemingly improvised exchanges between the characters soar.
But this is Martin Scorcese’s vision through and through, and the 71-year-old director is still operating at the absolute peak of his powers. He recently talked about having “only a couple more” films left in him, and while that would be horrible, it’s hard to comprehend the amount of work and energy put into this film — his boldest, most brazen work ever — to make it look so effortless. He gets a positively breathtaking performance from DiCaprio, who is just fearless here. Belfort is wholly repugnant, but is completely mesmerizing on screen.
The staging is flawless; the camera glides through scenes in thrilling ways, sometimes echoing (intentionally or not) his previous work: the aftermath of one of Stratton Oakmont’s many, many bacchanals directly resembles the closing shot of Taxi Driver, and he’s as sharp with well-timed music cues as he was in that other masterpiece about professional crime, Goodfellas. It’s truly remarkable what he’s accomplished here: it’s vibrant, confident, even virile. It’s the work of someone still on the top of his game. It’s easily his best, most complete film in nearly a decade, and possibly longer, depending on how you felt about The Departed.
However, for how technically sensational the Wolf of Wall Street is, it’s still deeply unsettling. Because this is told from Belfort’s perspective, Scorsese leaves it up to the audience to morally judge him — Belfort’s certainly not going to do it himself. He takes no responsibilities for the lives he’s destroyed, or for the laws he’s flouted; the decay of his soul is absolute. He can’t do anything sober; his kindhearted first wife (Cristin Milioti) catches his cocaine-covered nose down the dress of blonde bombshell Naomi (Margot Robbie), divorces him, and all Belfort’s narration gives us is a half-hearted “I felt terrible…” before quickly changing the subject. When he eventually marries Naomi, has children with her, and buys an obscenely extravagant yacht in her name, he has a chance to tap the brakes on his behavior but is unwilling to do so — with devastating consequences.
Even with all of the gross excess and crippling avarice on display, and Scorcese not holding the audience’s hand to set it in its “proper” moral context, Wolf of Wall Street is a searing indictment of a culture that really does exist (very much so) in America. For all it’s comparisons to last week’s “Scorsese-lite” American Hustle, thematically Wolf draws some parallels — on the opposite side of the scale — with 12 Years a Slave. Both are about the unfathomable depths of human behavior, and in neither is society quick to judge the perpetrators of the heinous deeds on screen. Belfort, through cooperation with the feds, gets off with nary a scratch: a short stay in a minimum security country club prison, and he is today — yes, the real Belfort — a highly-paid motivational speaker and sales trainer. Because this is the culture we live in. Scorcese isn’t glamorizing it. He doesn’t have to. Too many of us are already doing that ourselves.
As incendiary and brilliant as it is, it ultimately left me feeling a little hollow. If you have any convictions at all, it’s a challenging film to sit through. One family a few rows in front of me barely made it halfway before walking out (blame the film’s marketing, which proudly appeals to pro-capitalists without letting on how depraved things actually get). But it’s not a fantasy, and it’s not even a farce. It’s reality, which makes it the most depressing comedy of the year.