Review: The Wolf of Wall Street
PLOT: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, drug-addict, womanizer and wealthy stockbroker, who lived the life of a millionaire using other people's money until his misdeeds caught up with up.
REVIEW: To depict excess properly, you have to get excessive, and boy is that what Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and the rest of the WOLF OF WALL STREET clan do. Showing us the nightmarish drug-and-money fueled orgy of debauchery and immorality of a criminal stockbroker and his cronies, the film is based on the life of Jordan Belfort, who scammed millions out of helpless clients and lived like a king propped up by every vice imaginable. Some people will say this is a shady exercise in glamorizing the exploits of a pitiless crook, that the fruits of Belfort's enterprise are just too appealing to be worried about the pitfalls (meager jail time, brutal hangovers). But Scorsese has made an absolutely pitch-perfect comedy; at 71-years-old, we should trust that the man knows what he's doing, and the proof is in every wild frame of this bizarre film.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is not exactly a biopic of Belfort; it spends very little time on his youth or even his rags-to-riches tale. He started off humbly, working at a firm (where he is called pond scum) and being mentored by a brash, coked-up Matthew McConaughey, who imparts notes of wisdom that will forever change the initially-idealic Belfort's way of thinking. Pearls like "jerk off at least twice a day" and cocaine will help you dial the phone faster, and the all-important lesson that the client's money is not your concern, your own money is. Before you know it, Jordan gets his license and is ready to take on the world - but the Wall Street crash of 1987, known as Black Monday, ruins his life in an instant; he's jobless and hopeless, contemplating becoming a stock boy while his wife (Cristin Milioti) ponders selling her engagement ring.
But Belfort gets another chance at a low-rent firm in Long Island, where he quickly schools the shleps on hand how to wring large commissions out of even the lowliest of penny stocks. Belfort assembles a gang of bozos who are just as conscience-free as he is, and though they lack insight or intelligence, they're able to follow his lead by sticking to the main rule of the trade, which is you never let the client go until you've conned them into buying more than they're comfortable with. Thus, Belfort quickly starts off his own firm, called Stratton Oakmont, just because it sounds dignified, and proceeds to move them up the food chain until they're all making millions through every illegal scam you can think of.
Once Scorsese and writer Terence Winter have established the coming-up angle, they dive fully into a nonstop marathon of jacked-up depravity that has to be seen to be believed. These guys' sexual predilections, their drug preferences, their lowly concepts of fun (dwarf-tossing! shaving the secretary's head!) are dramatized in gruelingly amusing detail. An apt alternate name for the firm's office would be "Animal House," since these fellas are barely distinguishable from frat boys on their worst days. The yachts, the houses in the Hamptons, the trips to Vegas - Scorsese displays the boorish adventures of Belfort and his men with sizzling energy; since these idiots are almost always high or drunk, barely able to stumble from one terrible decision to the next, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET burns with that same crazed attitude, bounding gleefully from one sequence to the next with no look back. Scorsese makes us live this psychotic fever dream, shrewdly aggrandizing these shenanigans while pointedly noting how hollow and grotesque it all is.
It's easy to say that this is Scorsese in GOODFELLAS/CASINO mode; Belfort's voice-over, the adrenaline rush of crime, the manic intensity of the protagonists, all harken back to Scorsese's scary-fun mob movies. But WOLF is working on a different level; it's surreality is undeniable, and every scene bubbles with a canny grasp of the satirical. Watch the shots of DiCaprio's employees as they go absolutely bonkers in their office, making calls, arguing, doing blow, turning into neanderthals with suits and ties. Scorsese could certainly fool us into thinking "that's how it really is," but the truth is these moments are existing in a heightened reality. Scorsese is in no way patting these people on the back; he's giving us the inside look at how draining and ridiculous it can be to live your life as a raging party animal. The movie itself is draining - it's intentionally bloated and excessive at three hours. This is Scorsese wearing you down with all the "fun" these boys are having.
It's safe to say, in my estimation, that this is the best Leonardo DiCaprio has ever been. There's no vanity in the performance; he plumbs the depths of Belfort's hedonism shockingly well, sometimes coming off as a cocky leader and showman, other times rampaging bug-eyed and drooling through moments he'll barely remember or regret. Stunningly, DiCaprio is frequently hilarious (who knew Leo was funny?), with a handful of instant-classic rants and speeches. The highlight is certainly a prolonged, uproarious sequence where Jordan is so doped up on qualudes (his drug of choice) that he can barely figure out how to leave a country club and enter his car. This goes on for so long it shouldn't work but it does, thanks to Scorsese's persistence and DiCaprio's amazingly vivid mimicry of a slobbering, nearly catatonic Belfort as he struggles to speak and move. The culmination of this scene, a sloppy tussle between Belfort and his right-hand man Donnie (Jonah Hill) is a show-stopper.
Scorsese has also rounded up a terrific supporting cast, chief among them Hill as Donnie Azoff, a sick puppy who latches onto Jordan the moment he spots his expensive car. With shiny white (false) teeth and a husky New York-Jewish accent, Hill shows us another side to his comedic timing, as Donnie's every hideous whim is performed with the snotty humor of a privileged child. Even more than Jordan, he's someone you love to hate. Also really shining is Margot Robbie, as the beautiful trophy wife Jordan eventually kicks his first wife to the curb for. Robbie is unfamiliar to me, but I was astounded to learn she's Australian; her Brooklyn accent is so flawless it's unbelievable. Not just another pretty face, Robbie is a real discovery by Scorsese. Rob Reiner has a great small part as Jordan's fiery father. McConaughey's time on screen is brief but suitably memorable. Kyle Chandler lends some authority, and bitter humor, to the role of the FBI agent who tracks down all of Jordan's misdeeds. And Jean Dujardin (he of THE ARTIST fame) is really splendid in a small but crucial role as a Swiss banker in cahoots with the irresponsible brokers.
But, as can be counted upon, this is Scorsese's show. Once again he proves why he's likely this generation's best director, and it's heartening to learn he still has tricks up his sleeve. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a clever condemnation of the frenzied joyride it appears to be glorifying, leaving you feeling strangely morose when it's all over - the comedown after a glorious high. Yet you still leave thinking it's the funniest movie of the year by far. Mr. Scorsese, we're still in awe of you.