When I first saw The Wolf of Wall Street, I remembered saying to myself, "Now THAT is a movie." It’s shameless, disgusting, exciting, and exhausting. Without question, it's one of the most entertaining films to have ever been made...period. You probably hate that it runs 3 hours long, but this is Martin Scorsese delivering a cinematic landmark.
If you look closely, you might be able to see your own corrupt fantasies in how these Wall Street scumbags spend their gains on drugs, cars, yachts, jets, and hookers. One could watch these cackling swine for hours while still finding them disturbingly fascinating. Working with acclaimed Sopranos writer Terrence Winter, Scorsese is jabbing hard at the dark side of American culture.
Once again, following Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese has his eye on money -- and how it trickles up through society from the bottom to the top. The Wall Street scammers don’t carry guns, but rather greed. They wear it as if it were a second skin. Front and center in this circus is Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) -- a broker who made a fortune on shady penny stock deals (while also spending a fortune on drugs, sex, and other self indulgences in the process). He’s here to sell you nightmares disguised as your dreams.
In the late 80’s, he moved from selling penny stocks to founding Stratton Oakmont -- a Long Island firm running the same scam from a nicer office. In the film, the story line sticks to Belfort’s perspective. Scorsese’s direction brilliantly captures the autobiographer’s vigor and energy. He unleashes a furious, yet incredibly controlled style -- complete with a soaring and plunging camera, volatile special effects, and stunning choreography on a grand scale. Scorsese allows Belfort to narrate the action whilst in the midst of living it. He addresses the camera with monologues showing him to be both outside and inside the events that have taken place.
It’s a genius cinematic choice. Ultimately, it’s essential to Scorsese’s vision of Jordan’s story. It allows for the extraction of disturbing moral ideas. In the beginning, the Queens-raised Belfort tried to establish himself on Wall Street in a more traditional way. We see his start at a blue chip firm under the direction of his sleazy mentor played by Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey’s scene is brief but masterful. He tunes the movie in a haunting beat. It helps in setting the pace for the entirety of the film. Scorsese is able to put together a finely meshed ensemble. He incorporated flamboyant solo actors who aid in strengthening each other through physical and vocal specificity. As the money starts flowing in, the market crash of 1987 occurs. Jordan is then left jobless. This is when he reinvents himself and establishes Stratton Oakmont. At one point the firm employed over 1,000 stock brokers, and was involved in stock issues totaling more than $1 billion.
Belfort and his company established the “pump and dump” operation -- which basically means artificially blowing up the value of a worthless stock. It would then be sold at a huge profit, after which the value drops and the investors lose all their money. Taking its cues from gangster films, Wolf shows how Jordan rose from humble origins -- becoming so rich and notorious that it would ultimately be his demise. Belfort’s right hand man is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a hefty wiseass scumbag with gleaming teeth. Hill's character quits his job on the spot once he meets his hero. He then joins Belfort's team, helps him launder money across the country, and introduces him to crack (as if Belfort didn’t have enough intoxicants in his system). As Belfort puts it, he consumes enough drugs to “sedate Manhattan, Long Island, and Queens for a month.”
For them, there is no wrong time for a new hustle -- with Quaaludes being the drug of choice for these masters of the universe. One scene, in which a drugged up Belfort drives home from a country club, is one of the most hilarious (and scary) moments in the film. Rob Reiner -- who plays Jordan’s volcanic dad -- is the office enforcer in the film. He screams about workplace sleaze and their vast expenditures, but often seems to live vicariously through the young wolves of the trading floor. Belfort is married when the films begins to a respectable and good woman. However, she doesn’t approve of his financial exploits or chronic infidelity. Belfort soon tosses her aside for a blonde and curvy trophy wife named Naomi LaPaglia (Margot Robbie). After a few years, Jordan is living in a gaudy mansion -- buying yachts rapidly and flying from meeting to parties drugged out of his mind.
One day, a federal prosecutor (Kyle Chandler) enters the picture after having read a Forbes interview of Jordan talking about his lavish and extravagant lifestyle. He confronts Belfort on his own turf, and Jordan slowly begins to realize his time may be up. He would eventually serve up to 22 months in jail for his sins. With that said, Jordan loves what he does. It’s thrilling for him to abuse his power, and it’s thrilling for us to watch. He’s driven by his desire for a greater pleasure, a higher more earth-shattering sort of ecstasy.
Scorsese is not seeking to justify, explain, or even apologize for Belfort’s actions. He wants to reveal the impulse behind the self indulgence and the terrifying inner force within the monster of vanity. What makes the movie a comedy is that after all Jordan went through, he actually survived. His memories take a tone of wonder that such things could have ever happened -- let alone happened to him. DiCaprio portraying Belfort gives one of his most fully satisfying and exhilarating performances of his life. He leaves impersonation and mimicry behind, and instead unleashes spontaneous bursts of kinetic energy that seem to tear through the screen. It’s marvelous to watch.
Much like most of Scorsese films, the laughs are nonstop and merciless. Scorsese doesn’t coddle his audience. This is the fifth film he and DiCaprio have worked on together. They’re still daring each other, still pushing the limits. One can only hope their next film is just as enticing an adventure as Wolf.
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