Oh, my, my. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is outrageous, an offense against modesty, a shameless celebration of bad conduct. Based on the memoir of convicted stock swindler Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), it’s a blistering caricature of the ethical rot that led to the Wall Street crash of 2008. Also, it’s a really funny comedy. And at three hours’ running time, it’s an exorbitantly long comedy. Think the mock-epic picaresque novels of Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) or Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy). Or, in more modern terms, Scarface meets Dennis the Menace. Wolf is discernibly a companion piece to Scorsese’s mid-career criminal biographies, Casino and Goodfellas, movies made before the most influential American director of the past half-century decided to get responsible and Oscar-conscious (The Departed, Hugo) Welcome back, Mr. Scorsese, your sardonic Mr. Hyde side has been missed.
After an opening which slyly bleeds into the pre-movie ads, we catch a brief glimpse of the reality of a typical afternoon at Belfort’s brokerage firm: A dwarf-tossing contest, with fistfuls of cash being flung into the air by the howling employees.
A beat later, in DiCaprio’s mellow voiceover, we are offered a description of the extremely high life enjoyed by Jordan Belfort, multimillionaire idiot, playboy degenerate, snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s behind, getting fellated while screaming down the highway in his white Lamborghini (“like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice”) and, drugged-out to the point of nodding, nearly crashing a helicopter on the lawn of his multimillion-dollar Long Island estate.
Who is this stooge, and why is he a hero in his own mind? Don’t worry: Jordan will tell us in flashback, starting when, as a 22-year-old baby broker, he gets his first job on Wall Street, at the white-shoe brokerage firm of L.F. Rothschild. Here, he’s immersed in the obscene language and cutthroat culture of the trading floor. He meets his mentor: a senior broker (Matthew McConaughey) who takes him out for a martini and cocaine lunch, complete with wise advice (masturbate frequently to relieve stress; take coke to stay focused) and a chest-thumping tribal chant to the voracious Lord of Money.
The year is 1987, and shortly after Jordan gets his broker licence it’s Black Monday. Goodbye job, goodbye L.F. Rothschild. In desperation, he ends up at a penny-stock boiler-room operation working out of a strip mall, selling “garbage to garbage men” for a 50-per-cent commission.
In no time, Jordan has set up his own operation, adopted the phony-tony company name Stratton Oakmont, and turned his team of dropouts and drug dealers into a sales force and personal cult. Their specialty is “pump and dump” operations, artificially hyping stocks and then dumping them just before the inevitable downturn. His sidekick is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a Jewish WASP wannabe, in tortoise-shell horn-rims and sweaters tied around the neck, who shares Jordan’s passion for all forms of debauchery.
Scorsese and his Boardwalk Empire collaborator, screenwriter Terence Winter, avoid anything that resembles moralizing, though often there’s a sickly kicker to these scenes that undermines Jordan’s enthusiastic voiceover narration. In an office orgy sequence (quoting a similar scene in Citizen Kane), an assistant is paid to shave her head and, while half-naked bodies are tumbling around her, we see the woman wincing as her hair falls away. Jordan’s second marriage, to a Barbie-doll lingerie model (Margot Robbie), is consumated in “a fairy-tale wedding” in Vegas – right after the groom gets rid of the STDs he contracted at his bachelor party.
Excess is both the theme and the filmmaking approach here. The Wolf of Wall Street is bloated: Individual sequences are filmed brilliantly (Scorsese’s employment of freeze-frames, slow-motion and tracking shots still puts his many imitators to shame), but overextended. One exhausting scam and disaster follows another. When, you ask, will someone say enough is enough – which, perhaps, is what capitalism gone wild is all about.
What keeps the energy percolating is DiCaprio’s performance, in the loosest and most charismatic turn of his career. The character is a moral idiot, but his sheer irrepressibility is almost a virtue. He’s a kind of twisted evangelist who preaches to his congregation of hucksters that the religion of capitalism is not about saving souls, but finding marks to screw over.
Don’t worry: There’s also a good guy here, though he takes a while to show up. That’s FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who, as seen by Jordan, is one of those underpaid schnooks who needs to punish those with more imagination and courage than himself. In one of the movie’s several indelible sequences, Jordan invites the cop onto his yacht. The entire scene is a beautiful little one-act play of gamesmanship and shifting status between the two men.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a physical-comedy sequence that seems destined to live on in the annals of slapstick. Jordan and Donnie have a delayed reaction to some extra-strength Quaaludes, which leads to Jordan’s epic slow-motion journey from a country-club lobby to the driver’s seat of his Testarossa, and a subsequent battle for control of a telephone that’s on par with Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel.
Like everything in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s all too, too much; for my part, I couldn’t get enough of it