The Wolf of Wall Street

Sex, drugs, and securities fraud: Scorsese & DiCaprio revel in Wall Street excess in one of the year's best films

Also opening this week:

• The Book Thief ★★

The Wolf of Wall Street

Rating The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Wolf of Wall StreetThe Wolf of Wall StreetThe Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Margot Robbie, Jon Favreau, Shea Whigham, Justin Wheelon, Aya Cash, Michael Nathanson, Ethan Suplee, Katarina Cas, Joanna Lumley, J.C. MacKenzie, Ashlie Atkinson, Cristin Milioti, Dan Bittner, Robert Clohessy, Christine Ebersole, P.J. Byrne. Written by Terence Winter, from the book by Jordan Belfort.

Going after Wall Street with the same whirlwind flair he brought to organized crime in Goodfellas and Casino (hey, what’s the difference?), Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street shares a lot in common with his mob-centered epics – and it’s the director’s best film since those two came out twenty-plus years ago. 

Of course, it hasn’t hit screens without a fair bit of controversy: edited to avoid an NC-17 rating in the US, the film captures the grotesquely over-indulgent lives of its Wall Street goons with wall-to-wall sex, drug and alcohol use, and other abhorrent behavior, including a record-breaking 522 drops of the F-bomb over the course of its 3-hour runtime. Whew.

But it isn’t (only) what’s happening onscreen that’s stirring the pot. Most of the criticism leveled against The Wolf of Wall Street adopts the stance that the film is not only condoning the actions of these people but celebrating them – that this is one big party ride that is just as morally bankrupt as the characters it portrays.

And that’s completely missing the point. We let Jordan Belfort and co. – and others like them – get away with what they do, and we continue to do so. The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese rubbing our faces in it. Angry about what’s being portrayed? Well, you should be. 

This is, as another critic put it, Scorsese’s Satryicon: the debauchery displayed here comparable to that of ancient Rome in the Petronius novel and the 1968 Fellini film (DiCaprio has even compared the story here to that of a “modern-day Caligula”.) If that work was a sign of the decline of Roman civilization, well, you know where this one is going.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, a young Jewish stockbroker who, at the start of the film, is on the first day of his job at a big Wall Street firm. Millionaire boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, magnetic in his few scenes) clues him in on the big trade secret: it’s all bullshit. No one knows which stocks are going to rise or fall; it’s just all a game to keep clients pumping money into the system. And you’ll need to do a lot of coke and jerk off a few times a day to stay in it.

Belfort loses his job when the firm goes under on Black Monday, but he takes Hanna’s advice to heart – especially at his next job, selling penny stocks in a Long Island call center. Director Spike Jonze (Her) is a hoot as the broker who tells Jordan of the benefits of working in penny stocks – the agent gets a whopping 50% commission cold-calling lower-middle class schmucks and getting them to invest their savings in worthless stock. “Is all of this legal?” he asks. “Well…”

In no time, Jordan is starting his own company – Stratton Oakmont – with his neighborhood friends, pot dealers, and other flunkies, including Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, wildly flamboyant), Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal), and others; with Jordan’s script, anyone can get rich selling these stocks. He hires his own father, “Mad” Max (Rob Reiner), as the firm’s accountant. 

Along the way, Jordan dumps his wife for a stunning blonde dubbed ‘The Duchess of Bay Ridge’ (played by Australian actress Margot Robbie), eventually siring two children with her. Robbie, by the way, more than holds her own with DiCaprio, using her sexuality (and a flawless Longuyland accent) to create an intimidating screen presence: there’s an explosive chemistry on the screen whenever she and Leo are going at it.

But the whole cast is great; P. J. Byrne, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, and others are perfect as Jordan’s Stratton Oakmont lackeys, and Jean Dujardin shows up as the Swiss banker who helps him launder his ill-gotten gains. Kyle Chandler is the sole voice of morality is this mess as the FBI agent on Jordan’s trail; that brief climactic shot of his ride home in a subway car is unforgettable, and the perfect summary of everything that is wrong here. 

The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t exactly follow traditional dramatic formula; Like Goodfellas and Casino, it’s a sprawling, ambitious script that stays true to its real-life origins and gets through an incredible amount of story in rat-a-tat fashion; despite being a full three hours long, the film just flies by (Scorsese’s original cut reportedly clocked in at four hours). Terence Winter adapted Belfort’s own novel of the same name. 

If there’s one thing missing from the film, it’s that the financial system and its jaw-dropping loopholes aren’t fully delved in to; at one point, DiCaprio starts to get into the shenanigans before turning to the camera and telling us he doesn’t want to bore us with all the legal details. The system (and everything that Wall Street exploits within it) is better detailed in Belfort’s novel, which I read after seeing the film – the book makes for an interesting comparison, but without Scorsese’s perspective, it sometimes does feel like the celebration of excess that critics have derided the film for being (even if Belfort comes across as even more despicable in his own words). 

An exhilarating tour de force from both Scorsese and DiCaprio (the best he’s ever been, in a film that makes up for The Great Gatsby earlier this year), The Wolf of Wall Street is a breathtaking and often blisteringly funny ride (that Quaaludes scene!) that doesn’t let up for a minute during its three-hour runtime. It’s easily one of the best – and most important – films of the year. 

Final scenes show where Belfort is now, working as a “motivational speaker”, as hundreds of zombie-like spectators hang on his every tip for success. My God, we’re worse off now than we were before.

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