Just when you thought it was safe to bring your kids to the multiplex, in comes Martin Scorsese with The Wolf of Wall Street. Merely two weeks after David O Russell's hilarious dark comedy American Hustle picked up raves and drew comparisons to Scorsese, the American legend one ups Russell and proves that when it comes to riotous, rock n’ roll-scored, envelope pushing epics about titanic criminals living it large, nobody does it better.
Adapted by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) from the (self-described) insane autobiography by former Wall Street king-pin Jordan Belfort, Scorsese’s film is a gargantuan and sprawling American epic of greed, hedonism and all the depravity that erupts when lunatics take control of the mental asylum we call Wall Street. It’s wild, hilarious, lewd, and the fastest three hours you’ll spend in a movie theater this year. Scorsese’s funniest film to date, The Wolf of Wall Street is simultaneously a straight up examination of the Wall Street culture as well as a scathing satire, crafted by an all-star team of below-the-line artists (Thelma Schoonmaker, Rodrigo Prieto, Sandy Powell et al.) all working at the peak of their crafts. It’s also home to a sensational, whacked-out performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
DiCaprio plays Belfort, a Wall Street broker who by the age of 26 had made 49 million dollars as the head of his brokerage firm. As he proudly boasts in the film’s opening monologue, he also gambled like a degenerate, drank like a fish, slept with hookers five times a week, and had three different Federal agencies trying to indict him. Most of all, he consumed enough drugs on a daily basis to sedate the island of Manhattan… for a month. His words, not mine.
Belfort’s rise to the stratosphere of the debauchery chain began in the mid 80s when he joined a brokerage firm as a connector – i.e. a lowly cold-caller. But his cock-sure confidence and drive soon catches the eye of a crazed senior broker named Mark Hannah (Matthew McConaughey - who deserves some type of special madman award for his whacky turn here). Hannah advises him that the only way to make money in this dog-eat-dog world is to line your pockets with your clients’ money before they have a chance to do so. He also encourages him to have as much drugs and sex as possible. Belfort soon becomes a broker but the crash of 1987 leaves him without a job.
A chance meeting with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill – in consummate creep mode), a fellow slimy and ambitious weirdo, leads to the creation Stratton Oakmont, a new brokerage firm. Dabbling in penny stocks, the duo, and their team of slime-balls and scumbags quickly make their way up the ladder, squeezing hundreds of thousands from their naive clients, even impressing the big-wigs on Wall Street, and eventually earning Jordan the nickname “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
As Stratton’s fortunes keep rising, Jordan’s lifestyle spirals from crazy to ludicrous to obscene to Caligula. He trades in his first wife (Cristin Milioti) for a blonder, bustier one named Naomi (a terrific Margot Robbie). He buys a mansion, a private jet, a helicopter, six cars, three horses, two vacation homes, a 170 foot yacht and a partridge in a pear tree. Every party he throws turns into a smorgasbord of drugs, sexual orgies and vomit. Sadomasochism, strippers and Quaalude benders become his daily medicine – that is, until a shrewd and incorruptible FBI agent named Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler – using his sweet Friday Night Lights persona to disguise Denham’s craftiness) makes Belfort his personal project.
With its sprawling narrative, colorful characters and rock soundtrack, comparisons to Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese’s previous dabbles into the decadent lifestyles of criminals, will be inevitable. It’s not a stretch. The frat boy protagonists of Wolf may not be murdering psychopaths but their criminal exploits – which includes drug use, infidelities, large-scale theft – are on the same, if not higher, level than those committed by the Henry Hills and the Sam Rothstein’s of this world. Unlike those films however, which were primarily dramas with elements of comedy, Wolf is an outright comedy – and a boisterous one at that. An extended sequence in which Jordan and Azoff suffer the consequences of taking too many Quaaludes ranks as the strangest and most outrageous pieces of slapstick comedy I’ve seen this year. And that’s just one of the highlights in a movie populated with absurd imagery.
DiCaprio, who gets criticized (unfairly, in my opinion) for taking himself way too seriously, reveals a talent for physical comedy in this film that I didn’t think he was capable of. Along with his devilish turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, his magnetic performance here feels like the work of an actor ready to take on riskier parts – ones free of inhibitions. Jordan Belfort may be a monster but like Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko and Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, DiCaprio makes him an irresistible monster; a twisted Robin Hood who you can’t take your eyes off; and whose talent at seduction epitomizes this country’s obsession with greed. It’s not exactly his best work to date but it’s his most dedicated one.
With its lengthy running time, copious scenes of graphic sexuality and drug use, as well as Scorsese’s decision to not take an obvious stance on his vile protagonists, The Wolf of Wall Street is bound to be accused of glamorizing or condoning the lifestyles of Belfort and his cronies. While there’s certainly a case to be made considering the film’s lively tone and excessive (and seemingly never-ending) scenes of bacchanalia, I’d argue that the only way to get inside the mindset of the disgusting characters at the heart of this seedy tale was to view it from their deranged, tunnel-view perspective.
The Wolf of Wall Street may not be for everyone but then again, with the exception of Hugo, you could make that case for every one of Scorsese’s films. A master of the form, Scorsese proves that even at the age of 71, he still has the capability to stir up controversy and conjure films that excite and challenge the norms. It’s why he remains one of cinema’s most consistent filmmakers and America’s greatest living cinematic treasure.