At the very least, Leonardo DiCaprio can claim to have cornered the market on 20th century Long Island gazillionaires. Having begun his year portraying Jazz Age mystery man Jay Gatsby, he closes it by serving up a wild portrait of a poster child for ‘90s financial excess in The Wolf of Wall Street. Nearly as extravagant as the characters it depicts, Martin Scorsese’s comic, operatically-scaled film is, on a moment-by-moment basis, often madly entertaining due to its live-wire energy, exuberant performances and the irresistible appeal of watching naughty boys doing very naughty things.
At the same time, the dramatic strategy of titilating an audience with salacious behavior for 90 percent of the time, only to deliver a wages-of-sin message at the end, is older than Cecil B. DeMille, while the hopped-up visuals, editing and music feel like the stylistic equivalent of doubling up coke and Viagra. Without a doubt, Paramount’s sybaritic, three-hour Christmas Day release will divide audiences, but the now five-film DiCaprio-Scorsese collaboration should continue to yield pretty strong returns commercially.
Although never the household name he’ll now become with a big movie made about him, Jordan Belfort was nonetheless emblematic of the unrestrained financial shenanigans of the final years of the American century, when the idea of any consequences for lid-off monetary opportunism seemed unthinkable (it’s quite likely that Wolf could be a giant hit in China, Russia and other markets where the spectacle of American irresponsibility will be most appreciated). A working-class New York kid, Belfort enthusiastically embraced the cutthroat Wall Street ethos in his early 20s and eventually formed a respectable-sounding company, Stratton Oakmont, featuring a boiler room ethos among employees that was thoroughly drilled in their leader’s take-no-prisoners sales approach.
Indicted in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering, Belfort got off easy by ratting out many associates to the FBI and served but a brief sentence in a country club-like prison facility where his bunkmate was Tommy Chong. He’s now a popular motivational speaker, his fee no doubt about to soar.
The format of Terence Winter’s ever-percolating script closely resembles those of two major Scorsese films about underworld figures, Goodfellas and, especially, Casino. Wolf is wallpapered with first-person narration, takes pains to explain how the business and scams work and positively wallows in the pleasure of elaborating the minutiae of self-gratification through criminal and otherwise depraved activity, the immorality and illegality of which have been totally waived away by the characters. This approach works on the viewer by providing what feels like privileged access to individuals you’d abhor in real life but who, as inhabited onscreen by charismatic actors, are undeniably fascinating for how they get away with so much for so long. It’s the gangster formula, here applied to white collar types.
Scorsese’s point of view toward these characters, and his reasons for returning to them time and again, could profitably be analyzed further. It’s safe to say, however, that, at 71, the director is still making the films of a much younger man and is showing no signs of turning toward a more reflective, meditative style.
Effectively setting both the iniquitous attitude and the adrenalized acting style that will predominate is Matthew McConaughey, who, in his one big scene as a successful drug-drink-and-sex-addled broker, tutors the 22-year-old greenhorn Jordan (DiCaprio) at a very funny lunch on what it takes to become a whiz in the money business.
Jordan has just gotten a taste of Wall Street life when Black Monday hits in October, 1987, sending him back to square one. Married and desperate for any income, he sets up a few desks in a Long Island garage, slaps the “classy” name of Stratton Oakmont on it and instructs a few young guys, most notably eager acolyte Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), in the high-pressure art of selling penny stocks to suckers over the phone. It’s the start of something very, very big.
From the outset, the parties and celebrations are totally debauched; throughout, Scorsese pushes to the outer limits of the R rating (the film did require cutting to avoid an NC-17) in showing drug excess perhaps outdone only by Scarface and rampant sex, including in the workplace. Even when the firm grows to a thousand employees, the office filled with white-shirt-and-black-tied men more often resembles a mosh pit more than a place of business. Jordan’s ferocious inspirational speeches to his troops are among the film’s highlights, and the boss gets his greatest satisfaction from seeing the men (there are a few women) go ape with abandon at the prospect of their unethical practices reaping ever-escalating profits. Greed is all-pervasive and is held as life’s greatest virtue.
With success for Jordan comes a trade-up trophy wife; Naomi Lapaglia (promising Australian newcomer Margot Robbie) is as gorgeous as can be, although her lower-class roots show whenever she opens her mouth. The charter flight to Vegas for a $2 million wedding party sets a new high bar for R-rated debauchery (this was reportedly one of the scenes most heavily trimmed for the ratings board) and the sky’s the limit on other expenditures as well: mansions, the fanciest cars, a helicopter and a yacht to which Jordan invites FBI agent Denham (an excellent, low-key Kyle Chandler) when authorities decide to put him in their sights.
One particularly tasty side story involves Jordan’s use of Naomi’s stylish British aunt Emma (Joanna Lumley) to systematically stash large sums of cash in Swiss banks. A proud survivor of the Swinging Sixties, Emma is a wonderful character in this context, one whose eyebrows are scarcely raised by the younger generation’s antics because she’s seen it all—and no doubt participated in it—before. An innuendo-laden scene between her and Jordan in a park is a classic of alternating voice-over inner dialogue.
Scorsese leaves no storytelling device or trick unused except for understatement. The real-life story being told may be dramatic, but much of it is played for comedy, sometimes to the edge of farce, notably in a hilarious scene in which Jordan, under the effect of vintage Quaaludes to “the cerebral palsy stage,” agonizingly drags himself out of a country club, tumbles down a flight of stairs and attempts to drive home. It’s hallucinatory slapstick under the influence of Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati, and one of the director’s most inspired film buff interpolations here is to intercut Jordan’s drug ingestion with a clip of Popeye downing a can of spinach.
Even after he’s indicted in 1998 and is forced to give farewell speech to his disbelieving staff, Jordan has at least one more surprise up his sleeve, which extends the film right up to the three-hour mark. There are a few scenes and minor character subplots that could have been lost, particularly a protracted dispute between Donnie and a tough-guy underling that looks like it was meant to be funnier than it is and diverts attention from the central character for too long. But Scorsese clearly intended this to be a comedy-lined epic maxed out to grand opera proportions, so a little excess more or less wasn’t going to make much difference. Jordan would scarcely disagree.
This is undoubtedly DiCaprio’s largest and best screen performance, one in which he lets loose as he never has before, is not protective of vanity or a sense of cool and, one feels, gets completely to the bottom of his character. Caution was not an option with this characterization; the word does not exist for the actor or the character.
Unlike most of his screen work to date, Hill is not (just) comic relief here but a credible, if weird, figure, an eager young man perennially keen to prove to his boss that he’s willing not only to embrace but exceed his high standards of waywardness. The actor’s timing is terrific and he keeps offering surprises and nuances to the end. Even though it’s hard to believe he could have fathered DiCaprio, Rob Reiner is a hoot as Jordan’s old-line accountant dad. Even in this context, Jean Dujardin is a bit over-the-top as the smarmy Swiss banker.
Production values are, expectedly, top of the line across the board. However, coming from a filmmaker as meticulous as Scorsese, it’s surprising to see so many small but noticeable mismatched cuts in some of the dialogue scenes here.
Jordan Belfort’s story inspired the indie film Boiler Room in 2000.
Opens: December 25 (Paramount)
Production: Red Granite, Appian Way, Sikelina, Emjay Productions
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort
Producers: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Executive producers: Georgia Kacandes, Alexandra Milchan, Rick Yorn, Irwin Winkler, Danny Dimbort, Joel Gotler
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Bob Shaw
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Howard Shore
Visual effects supervisor: Robert Legato
R rating, 179 minutes