(USA, 179 min.)
Dir. Martin Scorsese, Writ. Terence Winter
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Rob Reiner, Kyle Chandler, Matthew McConaughey, Cristin Milioti, Jean Dujardin
The Wolf of Wall Street thrusts Martin Scorsese balls deep into the squealing hog of American capitalism. Scorsese doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the land of the free and wealthy, but this adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s riotously entertaining memoir is a gloriously debauched satire. Belfort is brought to life by Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives one of his better performances as the sly stockbroker steals from the rich and throws sexier parties than Jay Gatsby ever dreamed of. The Belfort of Scorsese’s film grabs the green light by the balls and makes the American Dream look like a Greek Tragedy. (Any film that begins with its protagonist ingesting cocaine from a prostitute’s vagina is bound to be a complete gong show.) The film should by all regards overdose on all of its sinful behaviour, yet Scorsese and company mix a cocktail that is so bat-shit crazy that it does the trick and stays remarkably lucid for all 179 minutes of its rambunctious running time.
Jordan Belfort gaily recounts in The Wolf of Wall Street about his rise and fall as a cutthroat stockbroker. The year was 1987 when he first became a certified broker—the year in which Gordon Gekko told Americans that greed was good. Jordan, not necessarily inspired by Michael Douglas’s slick-haired slimeball but obviously a kindred spirit, stepped off the bus a young idealist and left his first day of work infected by the poisonous money-high of trading stocks. His boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, who swells a cameo with outstanding gusto), offers the earnest Jordon three words of sound advice over liquid lunch that shape him for the years to come: “cocaine and hookers.”
Cocaine and hookers are Jordan’s food and fuel indeed. As The Wolf of Wall Street whizzes through the first few years of Jordan’s career, his success skyrockets by trading penny stocks and earning the whopping fifty-percent commission they entail. His business booms as he snorts some lines and taps some titties, enlisting unqualified college friends in a fraternal brokerage house where the salesman are given a script and rewarded ten-fold with all the lewd riches one can imagine. DiCaprio delivers one speech after another that make Wall Street greed look desperately ravenous. He amps the energy as high as it can go during these Shakespearean orations—one almost expects Jordan to collapse like Howard Beale does after appealing to the masses.
Jordan’s stock rises and he becomes living proof that nice guys do indeed finish last. He cheats the system and winds up filthy rich. He has a smoking hot wife—the first one, played by Cristin Milioti, had to go once he got a taste of high society—named Naomi, who is known to Jordan by the lovely pet name of The Duchess of Bay Ridge. Margot Robbie plays the tricky role of The Duchess of Bay Ridge with smoldering spirit. It’s a true screen breakthrough, for not only does the audible gasp from the males in the audience suggest a star is born in The Wolf of Wall Street, but Robbie’s ability to play the foil to DiCaprio’s badass pretty boy is remarkable since Naomi never seems like the spoiled rich bitch she could have been. Robbie is the Skyler White to DiCaprio’s Walter White. She’s also the perfect embodiment for America’s upper crust that is keen to take a bite of capitalism’s savoury pie and doomed to gag if it learns the recipe that makes the pie so tasty.
The manic energy of the performances, coupled with the cracked-out editing job by Thelma Schoonmaker and the film’s obnoxiously loud soundtrack, could easily lead one to dismiss The Wolf of Wall Street with a few keystrokes as quickly as Jordon writes off a thirty thousand dollar lunch and several business expenses to high class hookers. (A boisterous encounter between Jordan and his father (Rob Reiner) is a laugh-a-minute highlight.) The energy of The Wolf of Wall Street evokes comparison to a keg-fuelled brodown, and the film has more fucking expletives than Pulp Fiction and enough nude lady parts to make the girls of Blue is the Warmest Color blush. There’s no mistaking, though, that Scorsese and company pile on the R-rated fun to show the pervasive ugliness that underlies America’s money machine.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a full-on indictment of the broken system for which Belfort is the unrepentant champion. It’s a scary portrait that refashions Belfort’s story for the neoliberal post-Occupy America. The common folk have stepped up and been squashed down by the Big Bad Wolves with the bigger wallets, and The Wolf of Wall Street disembowels the players that win big in a world of unwavering self-indulgent profiteering. Jordan’s direct-address to the camera, which offers a nice nod of self-awareness to the film’s literary origins, offers some of the rare moments of lucidity for the mechanics of his success story.
Jordan, see, is always high. “Cocaine and hookers,” indeed, as Jordan and his partner-in-crime Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill, who gives his best performance to date) spend much of the film on lethal doses of blow, morphine and, most memorably, Quaaludes. The irony of Jordan’s sunny commentary is that the machine of American capitalism is run by a bunch of brokers who are too coked out of their minds to comprehend the consequences of their actions. Life is one big high, punctuated by the ring of the trading bell to mark a victory lap of sordid behaviour as the reward for a hard day’s work moving the money from another person’s bank account to one’s own.
The adaptation by Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”) takes significant liberties with Belfort’s memoir to deliver such a darkly funny satire. Belfort’s written story tells of a stockbroker who made it big by bending the rules, but was ultimately caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar and then redeemed himself by getting sober and prioritizing his family. The Jordan Belfort of the movie, on the other hand, is a repulsively self-serving douchebag who refuses to walk away when the going gets rough. He sells out every one of his closest conspirators to save his own ass, and DiCaprio plays the smugness of Belfort’s actions with juicy relish. The tones of the two Wolf of Wall Streets is unmistakable: the book takes pride in its rags-to-riches tale while the film looks back with disgust on the Wolf's twisted game of supply and demand. The disparity between the film and its source text is so impeccably glaring that The Wolf of Wall Street’s gonzo dramatization of Belfort’s story refashions the truth anew to show it for how disgusting it really is.
Scorsese sums up the sad truth that guys like Belfort win while nice guys finish last by ending The Wolf of Wall Street with a cynical juxtaposition between Jordan and the FBI agent, played by Kyle Chandler, who pursues Jordan throughout the film. It’s a quick montage that plays like a shot-reverse shot and echoes a quibble the two men have when first they butt heads on Jordan’s yacht. The agent, sitting alone and sweating his balls off on the subway, realizes that his punishment for making an honest living is to spend more minutes riding public transit during his lifetime than Belfort does sitting behind bars during the sentence for his shameless crimes.
The Wolf of Wall Street furthers the lament for the sucker by closing on an infomercial video for Jordan’s latest endeavor as a Get Rich Quick guru. He delivers a captivating speech that asks the masses to sell him a pen that he removes from his pocket and passes to them. It’s a simple task that even a lowly pot dealer can do, yet the audience of wide-eyed fools clings to Jordan in anticipation of his advice on fast money. Scorsese pans across the gawking audience and lets the masses share the blame for Jordan’s crime, for as long as naïve Little Red Riding Hoods will offer up their picnic baskets, the Big Bad Wolf will gobble them up.
Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
The Wolf of Wall Street is now playing in wide release.