Sleazy stockbroker and irreverent playboy Jordan Belfort, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, walks among the crowded cubicles at his office of his investment-fund-slash-boiler-room, Stratton Oakmont. His employees are madly delivering sales pitches for shaky stocks over the phone. Belfort looks out toward the audience with a smirk to elaborate on the business behind their Pink Sheets or to explain what an IPO is, but then stops himself, reminding us that we don’t care about any of that technical business mumbo-jumbo. No—we’re only concerned on its legality, to which Belfort gives a very succinct answer: “Abso-fucking-lutely not.”
Cue three hours’ worth of drugs, sex and insane amounts of cash.
Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is to the stock market what his earlier work Goodfellas is to the Mafia, both in overall themes and general plot structure. Scorsese offers viewers a look into another life of gross excess that is as intoxicating as it is revolting.
In the beginning, Belfort is a young man who hopes to make a splash in the midst of the 80s yuppie culture. Finding a job at a firm, he makes an impression on seasoned stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who warns Belfort that if he doesn’t start relying on drugs and sex he’ll never make it in the business. When he loses his job in the Black Monday crash he finds another one at a firm that does dealings with over-the-counter penny stocks that barely turn a profit. Belfort puts his smooth-talking business skills to work and is soon racking up large sales through artistic deception.
In time he makes enough money to branch out on his own, and with the help of his newfound eager partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) they create the profitable Stratton Oakmont. All is going well: Belfort throws gratuitous parties, snorts a lot of cocaine, and even finds a new wife in the “Duchess of Long Island”, Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie). But when he starts running into financial issues and a federal agent (Kyle Chandler), Belfort soon finds his company to be standing on very shaky ground.
Like Goodfellas, Wolf goes from scene to scene so quickly that after a while it starts to ramble. By contrast, scenes that hold on a single event for a few minutes’ time seem a bit awkward—even though they are terribly funny and exceptionally entertaining, like Belfort’s struggle to wriggle out of a hotel to his car followed by a sloppy crawl-fight with Azoff (all while they’re both hopped up on old methaqualone). Because of this the film seems a bit unnecessarily long, but seeing as excess is running trope perhaps that is appropriate. With the help of an upbeat editing rhythm and a rocking soundtrack, Scorsese presents a piece that feels exciting and energetic.
DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as his Belfort character is unrestrained from morals of any kind. Whether he’s having a conversation of expressions with a Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin), smoking crack with Azoff, or rallying his coworkers like a cheerleader at a pep rally—whenever Belfort is on-screen he can’t help but be enthralling to watch (despite his otherwise disgusting sense of depravity). Hill continues to prove that he can successfully take on alternative projects, as well, leaving the ring of Apatow influence for this darker comedy-drama fare. Rob Reiner also has a scene-stealing supporting role as Belfort’s hot-tempered father Max, giving business advice while cussing profusely.
Even with its comedic entrails, it’s a difficult film to watch—not necessarily because of the graphic nature of the events, but because of what they represent. While it obviously does not condone Belfort’s actions (including his manipulation of thousands of people), it does not seem like a condemnation, either—or, at least, a straightforward one. Belfort never seeks out redemption in his times of trouble, but rather escape—from his marriage, from his business, or from the law—and through the film’s set-up (and possibly our own cinematic expectations) we still look for either some justification to feel sorry for him or some harsh comeuppance. Yet, we are never entirely given one or the other, causing emotional confusion and delayed catharsis.
That’s because the film is actually a deception. It is merely a distraction and it is very aware of this, as Belfort says when he breaks the fourth wall: “But you don’t care about that!”, followed by Azoff bursting in with a bottle of booze to ring in a new sale. He thinks that we only care about the parties, and tries to brush his business dealings under the rug. Only once you realize that con can you feel the contempt, and what with the recent financial crises and bailouts of the past decade, this film may be more relevant than ever. If that’s the filmmaker’s attempt at condemnation, then it is a brilliant and convoluted construction.
The Wolf of Wall Street is thus an upsetting depiction of a life of luxury combatted through darkly comedic overtones and a thrilling bombardment of the senses.