“This is obscene,” stammers Max Belfort (Rob Reiner) upon first glimpse of his son’s empire, the spacious Long Island office where Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of cold-calling brokers work and play. “Obscene,” as it turns out, is practically a polite euphemism for how these crooks live—for the lucrative swindle they pull on their clueless clients, and for the endless orgies of drugs and hookers that otherwise occupy their time. There’s a lot of sense in Martin Scorsese, our premier cinematic authority on American sin, bringing this real-life tale of greed and hedonism to the screen. But who could have predicted that he’d turn it into a flat-out comedy, one as boldly excessive as the lives it chronicles?
At three hours, The Wolf Of Wall Street is Scorsese’s longest movie (barely edging out Casino). It’s also his crassest, his loudest, maybe his funniest—an aggressively broad satire of American ambition, the full meal to which Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, and The Bling Ring were merely appetizers. Such reckless indulgence provides the director his own excuse to indulge, and Wolf pushes his showboating stylistic tics and love for loutish behavior to the edge of their acceptable limits. But there’s a cracked logic, a genius almost, to the film’s amped-up irreverence. Maybe laughter isn’t just the best medicine, but the only sensible response to this much brazen amorality.
From Travis Bickle to Jake La Motta to the Italian and Irish gangsters of his crime epics, Scorsese has always been hooked on bad boys. And Belfort, the founder of shady brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, may be the baddest of them all. No, he never murders anyone (though he comes close at least once), but in his ruthless consumption—his endless need for more fixes, more women, more everything—he may be the most unscrupulous character Marty’s ever built a movie around. Introduced as a green stockbroker devoted to actually making his clients money (the naïveté!), Belfort quickly falls under the influence of a slick superior (Matthew McConaughey). In the first of many long, baggy dialogue scenes, this mentor figure initiates his young protégé into the pack. Suitably inspired, Belfort masters the sucker sell, later starting his own firm and surrounding himself with a posse of moldable lowlifes. Stratton Oakmont would in real life become one of the largest brokerage houses in the country, through both fraud and bullying sales tactics. (It was the inspiration for Boiler Room, which looks like an Ingmar Bergman film compared to this mad opus.)
The Wolf Of Wall Street finds Scorsese slipping back into Goodfellas and Casino mode, using Belfort’s revealing autobiography as the template for another sprawling true-crime saga. But while the years-spanning narrative and chronic voice-over recall those earlier hits, Wolf is less interested in the nitty gritty of Belfort’s bad business than in his monstrous ego and appetites. Stringing together an endless series of blow-out parties, the film occasionally approaches the barbed insanity of William Klein’s Mr. Freedom, especially when Belfort is pumping up his army of loyal employees. Scorsese seems pumped, too: His film kicks down the fourth wall, takes fevered digressions (like a short history of the Quaalude), and features a mind-reading showdown between Belfort and a sneaky Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin, from The Artist). Any doubt that this is a capital-C comedy basically evaporates the moment Scorsese cuts to the protagonist and his sexpot second wife (Margot Robbie) literally screwing on a bed of money.
As in The Departed, there’s the occasional sense that Scorsese should have reined in his actors a little more. (Though Jonah Hill, hilarious as the right-hand degenerate, basically masters the art of the riff.) What keeps Wolf together, even when it’s threatening to collapse under the weight of too many improvisational conversations or destructive drug trips, is the actor in the lead. Proving yet again that he does his best work under Marty’s direction, DiCaprio channels all of his star power—the heartthrob charisma he once resisted, in the wake of Titanic’s success—into this vacuous anti-hero. It’s a performance that plays brilliantly on his celebrity and his ageless good looks, while also building to an early-Pacino-like intensity during the mighty motivational speeches. The scene on a yacht, in which Belfort attempts to bribe the FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) watching his every move, is a triumph of verbal warfare. And in the movie’s deliriously funny highpoint, Belfort misjudges the potency of some ancient Quaaludes, his whole body giving out on him at a moment of urgent crisis. DiCaprio’s pathetic, spirited attempts to crawl to his car reveal an untapped gift for physical comedy.
There’s no shame in being repelled by all of this relentless debauchery, especially considering the guilty, gleeful pleasure Scorsese—ever the conflicted Catholic—seems to take in it. (Scenes in which the brokers beat the shit out of Belfort’s gay butler, or discuss the logistics of “midget tossing,” are much too humorous to qualify as disapproving.) But as far back as
Taxi Driver, which looks in the wrong light like an endorsement of vigilante justice, Scorsese has approached indefensible people with a mixture of fascination and disgust.
The Wolf Of Wall Street just locates a black, absurd humor in that comingling of feelings. Anyway, it’s hard to see anything celebratory in the film’s
Goodfellas-style upshot, exemplified by Belfort’s insistence that “There are no friends on Wall Street.” In the end, he’s more rodent than canine, but
The Rat Of Wolf Street just doesn’t have the same ring.