Jordan Belfort is eager to tell the audiences about his lifestyle, and show it off, too. Over breathless narration, Belfort brags about his daily drug intake (a cocktail of coke, ludes, booze, and more coke), and that snippet of dialogue is immediately before Belfort snorts coke off of a hooker’s asshole. Or does he blow the coke into her asshole? I’m not so sure. All this happens in the first minutes of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s three hour epic about drugs, corruption, and commitment to self-aggrandized excess. Scorsese may be over seventy, yet his latest shows that he’s in top form, and has no desire to slowdown. Those who don’t walk out of the movie will be exhausted by the time it’s over, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars at Belfort, a smart young broker full of promise until Black Monday upends his career. Desperate for work, Belfort finds a rickety operation out of Long Island and sees an opportunity there: the commission is fifty percent on penny stocks, so if he oversells the quality of his product, he can make serious bank while some schmuck loses his shirt (he feels queasy about this, but not enough to stop). It’s around here that Belfort stops going into the detail about his white collar crime: he literally tells the audience that his corruption is too boring to describe, so instead we watch him spiral out of control.
Belfort starts a brokerage firm with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and their meet cute is hilarious: he quits his job after the disbelief over Belfort’s weekly earnings. Together they create an office culture where every big sale is met with a Romanesque orgy of women, music, drugs, and midgets. Belfort goes through the motions of marriage with Noami (Margot Robbie) – he buy a yacht for her – but he can’t be a husband when his deepest commitment is to wealth at its most vulgar, or drugs at their most dangerous.
The most memorable, complex scenes happen on the floor of the brokerage form. There are rows of desks and traders, and the space in reminiscent of the office in the early scenes of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, except Scorsese’s camera has the depth of field to show the large set in its entirety. As Belfort, DiCaprio gives several stirring speeches just outside his large office. His language is a mix of platitudes and stunning defiance: there’s a late scene where Belfort decides to abandon tact in favor of glory, and the point is the workplace culture he created is just as addictive as the drugs in his body. The script by Terrence Winter apparently lifts swaths of dialogue from Belfort’s eponymous memoir, which is surprising since the language is so prickly and profane.
The important thing to realize about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it’s a pitch black comedy first. Unsurprisingly, the funniest scenes happen when Belfort and Azoff are whacked out of their minds. Many people will talk about the scene where they plan a special evening around some ludes: they’re extra potent, yet neither feels the effects immediately, so they take too many too early (classic rookie mistake). Belfort desperately tries to maintain his cool – there is a legal emergency – and Beflort says, “There’s a new stage of being high I’ve discovered: the cerebral palsy stage.” This scene then works on a meta-level because, well, DiCaprio does a riff on his mentally handicapped character from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (I imagine a rueful acceptance speech if he wins the Oscar).
Like the ultra-fast luxury cars that Belfort owns, The Wolf Wall Street is an exhilarating, if relentless rush forward. The trailers make hay of an early scene with Matthew McConaughey, and even though it’s relatively timid, McConaughey’s unintentionally creates the blueprint of what’s to follow. It’s all about stealing whatever you can and using drugs to give your mental capacity an advantage (or something like that). Once Belfort sets out on his own, he becomes the sort of boss who leads by example. Scorsese never slackens with this material, especially when Belfort has nasty encounters with an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) or a contemptuous Swiss Banker (The Artists’ Jean Dujardin). Winter’s script gives multiple characters an opportunity for voice over, so when there is a muted moment, we still hear just how ready they are to get it on (sometimes literally).
I’m not sure whether characters like this are easier or more difficult to play than ones with more nuance, but there is definite courage in how they go for broke. Scorsese and his team must have kept energy high on set since nearly every sequence is brimming with life – if you want to call it that – and shock. Jonah Hill’s character is the true standout: he plays Azoff like a nerdy sexual deviant, one who’d aspire to a life like Belfort’s if they’ve never met. There’s a running joke where Azoff cannot handle himself at parties, and cannot handle himself when presented with women or food. There are several likable supporting characters – Ethan Suplee and Rob Reiner have memorable turns – and what unites them is a shared love of f-bombs. I don’t mind telling you that I think a perfectly-timed f-bomb can be hilarious, and since this clocks in at just under three hours, they are simply too many great ones to count.
Given its narration and embrace of uniquely American phenomenon, The Wolf of Wall Street is a good companion to Goodfellas and Casino. The only difference is that Scorsese’s latest lacks the violence of his two gangster films: Belfort and the others are borderline sociopaths with their criminal behavior, yet no one is gets hurt in a physical sense. The irony is the gangsters from Scorsese’s other two films have a code of sorts, whereas Belfort and his underlings abandon theirs entirely. This is a movie about excess for its own sake, and how it could only happen in a financial system defined by conspicuous consumption. If Belfort did not exist, Scorsese and Winter would have to create him, though I’m not quite sure we would believe it.