Demonstrative of Martin Scorsese's breadth and abilities as one of the premier filmmakers of this or any generation, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is in nearly every imaginable way the polar opposite of his last film, 2011's chimerical period fantasy "Hugo
." Whereas "Hugo
" was affectionate, warm and timeless, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is ruthless, unfiltered and profane, a hedonistic fireworks display of wealth and corruption as seen through the eyes of powerful New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Written by Terence Winter (TV's "Boardwalk Empire"), based on Belfort's 2007 memoir, this sweeping 179-minute adaptation throttles forward, unapologetic in its candid chronicle of a young man who starts his career with valiant intentions and gets terribly lost along the way. It's darkly funny, sexually explicit and fearlessly disturbing all at once, anchored by Leonardo DiCaprio (2013's "The Great Gatsby
") in a deliriously brilliant performance that comes close to matching his Oscar-nominated work in 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" as the best of his career. If anyone still has doubts that he is one of the all-time great Hollywood actors, "The Wolf of Wall Street" is his resounding confirmation.
The year is 1987 when 22-year-old Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), fresh out of college, moves to the Big Apple with wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) to work on Wall Street. Starting out on the chaotic trading floor, he catches the eye of big dog Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who sees potential in him. Just as it seems as if he might quickly begin to rise among the ranks, an unexpected market crash leads to a layoff. With natural talent and newfound insight into the moving and shaking that goes into the business, Jordan gets a new job selling penny stocks in Long Island. Taking advantage of the uneducated working class and a fifty-percent commission rate, he soon is rolling in the dough that his clients have invested. Hiring Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) as his right-hand man, Jordan ultimately founds brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont. He suddenly has more money, more drugs and more women than he knows what to do with, but with professional success comes a cautionary tale of the "too-much-too-soon" variety. When FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts sniffing around about the company's illegal practices, it is but one more snag in a cyclone of a life that has gotten recklessly out of control.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is in no danger of being called a shrinking violet, emulating all of the decadence and subversiveness found in Belfort's book as seen through the eyes of Martin Scorsese's special panorama. A somewhat naïve guy at the onset who surpasses his initial career goals while discovering how differently the reality is to his expectations, he gets lost gradually but surely in the moralistic savagery that comes with wanting it all and knowing how to abuse the system to get exactly that. His well-scrubbed, wet-behind-the-ears appearance stands in contrast to the slippery, dishonest, Quaalude-dropping, sex-addicted bullshitter he becomes, seen in the opening scene tossing little people at a target bedazzled with dollar signs as a sort of despicable, dehumanizing in-office tension release. As Belfort tells it in voice-over, his favorite drug is moneywhich he promptly uses to snort his cocaine. When his fast living and cheating ways lead to the dismantling of one marriage, he picks up with second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), a former model and Miller Lite girl with whom he has two children. Their relationship is a querulous one, beginning somewhere between love and passion and dissolving into a diseased empty shell.
Jordan has all the material possessions he could want, but he royally screws up his personal life to the point of shambles. For a long time, the film does not seem to be properly locating the arc this scumbag of a protagonist needs to go through to make it a story with purpose over one that is merely shallow debauchery. Indeed, there is roughly a half-hour of material that might have been excised from the three-hour running time to make it a tighter picture. And then it comesa downward spiral that shakes Jordan out of his orgiastic, greed-induced tunnel vision. When he sees the bigger picture and all that he has exploited along the way, it is too late to make amends to those that he's hurt along the way.
Leonardo DiCaprio destroys the role of Jordan Belfort, and this is meant as the highest form of praise. There are no half-hearted attempts to make him likableJordan is who he is, and Scorsese is unapologetic in his depictionand, thus, the wrong actor might have made spending such an extended period of time with him insufferable. Leave it to DiCaprio, then, to keep the viewer glued to the screen. He's still not the most lovable of people, but there is an oily charm to him that keeps one watching. It helps that we get a frame of reference for who he once was and the metamorphosis that steals his soul. There is definitely tragedy in DiCaprio's embodiment of Belfort, but also a sly comic edge that gives him a chance to let loose like he rarely has in past projects. One sequence depicting the incapacitating effects of some particularly potent Quaaludes is so physically inspired it recalls no less than Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. As partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff, Jonah Hill (2011's "Moneyball
") continues to exhibit a surprisingly adept ability to portray a variety of dramatic parts which go beyond his funnyman persona, while Kyle Chandler (2013's "The Spectacular Now
"), as FBI Agent Patrick Denham, gets a masterfully written and performed scene with DiCaprio set on Belfort's yacht, a war of quietly simmering passive-aggressiveness as he tries to get Belfort to incriminate himself. In a breakthrough turn, 23-year-old Margot Robbie (2013's "About Time
") defies all preconceived notions that she must have been cast because of her striking physical beauty by more than holding her own with a veteran like DiCaprio. There is an uninhibited charisma and rawness to her work here that only deepens as the years pass Naomi by and she comes to find that she not only doesn't recognize her husband anymore, but, in fact, can no longer stand him.
In "The Wolf of Wall Street," Jordan Belfort becomes a legend, revered by his employees for keeping the paychecks coming and hated by those he uses and manipulates to get ahead. As unfaithful as he is to Teresa, then Naomi, he is every bit as protective of everyone who works for him. That they are every bit as quick to potentially sell him out when the chips are down is telling of the artifice with which he has chosen to build his life upon. Perhaps it sounds as if "The Wolf of Wall Street" is darker than it is. Yes, there is spellbinding high human drama involved, but in between there is a veritable buffet of provocatively winking and wickedly adult commentary. If it didn't all really happen, it would play as epic satire.