The Wolf of Wall Street is either a masterpiece or the most morally repugnant film of Martin Scorsese's career. I lean toward the former. On the surface, one might think the director is glorifying the Wall Street lifestyle of greed, corruption, hookers and cocaine, however the gratuitous debauchery on display is so over the top that it approaches parody. In tone, style and structure The Wolf of Wall Street resembles Goodfellas, but compared to the financial criminals portrayed in this film, the gangsters of that earlier masterpiece are model citizens.
The Wolf of Wall Street chronicles the true life rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a stock broker who made millions in the early 90's with methods that would make Gordon Gekko cringe. He unloaded worthless stocks on unsuspecting victims, and made a fortune by managing the IPO of a shoe company of which he was secretly a majority shareholder. Along with his partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), his life was a whirlwind of drugs, prostitutes, mansions and private yachts. Before long he atracted the attention of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) and began moving his money overseas with the help of an unscrupulous Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin).
Based on his memoir, the film is narrated by Belfort in the same way that Henry Hill narrated Goodfellas. Not having read the book, I have no idea if Belfort is at all reflective or remorseful, but DiCaprio, in his acting and narration, plays Belfort as a completely unaware bottom feeder. He begins his career with, if not idealism, but a little less base cynicism. This is quickly squelched by his first boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who instills in him the (anti)values that will shape his life, instructing him that all that matters is the money he makes for himself, clients be damned.
As insidious as Belfort and his compatriots are, it's impossible not to be entertained. Scorsese is such a fine director that he could make a decent movie while sleeping, but here he pulls out all the stops. What makes it a great film is the moral ambiguity; I don't think there is any doubt that Scorsese views these parasites with contempt, but he dares the audience to watch and not be entertained by their shenanigans. The movie plays like the blackest of black comedies. There is one scene, that I dare not spoil other than to say it involves dangerous amounts of quaaludes, that made me laugh harder than any movie in a long time.
It is a tribute to DiCaprio's acting that he doesn't try to make Belfort at all sympathetic. Unlike other antiheroes like Walter White or Dexter Morgan, we never want him to get away with it. Scorsese shows an almost populist delight in showing us Belfort's inevitable downfall. The performances are excellent, from DiCaprio on down. Jonah Hill masters the part of the slimy sycophant, with his horn rims and painfully white fake teeth. McConaughey continues his career renaissance with his ten minute scene, and Rob Reiner embodies clueless hilarity as Belfort's father.
The comparisons to Goodfellas are many, particularly in the denouement. Belfort, like Henry Hill, was hooked on the action just as much as the money and the toys it bought. And like Henry, Belfort has to live the rest of his life like a schnook. Goodfellas is still the better film, but it is fascinating how alike the worlds of the mob and Wall Street are. The difference is, at least the gangsters are honest about being crooks.