The man made famous for glorifying the mob moves over to Wall Street —Martin Scorsese’s latest, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” based on the memoir of crooked stockbroker millionaire Jordan Belfort, is a tale of excess: money, drugs, profanity, nudity, sex — even (pardon the cliché) rock ‘n roll, given the soundtrack. So how does Scorsese approach it? With excess. Measure for measure.
Encapsulated by the three-hour runtime, “Wolf” is an endless train of drugs, nudity, infidelity, flaunted wealth, cursing and political incorrectness. Scorsese wants to drill home just how outrageously this man lived his life. And just when you think you get the point, another outlandish scene will come along and remind you that you haven’t fully grasped just how absurd, inane and pathetic it all is.
Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) broke into the trading scene in the late ’80s and became quickly captivated by just how much he could fill his pockets. Adopting the doctrine of go get ’em entitlement and tribal chant taught to him by his first employer, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), Belfort discovers the human instinct of going out and getting what we think we deserve, and it trickles effortlessly into his sales tactics. Before long, he’s started Stratton Oakmont, Inc. with his new pal, Donnie (Jonah Hill), training a bunch of sleazy nobody salesmen to become experts at convincing wealthy people to give away their cash.
Of course his success blinds him (if not, in his mind, justifies him) to amoral behavior. He’s never a bachelor at any point in the film yet he has sex with hookers, does more cocaine and quaaludes than you could ever imagine and not before long, he’s laundering money left and right. Naturally, he ends up on on the watch list of FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). An extremely troubled man who acts first and thinks about the ramifications second, Belfort’s prudence with regards to his illegal activities never catches up to his ambition, so it’s clear he’s not a man who is going to successfully evade the law for long.
Scorsese’s approach to this story glorifies Belfort’s lifestyle, but at the same time he recognizes that Terence Winter’s (“Boardwalk Empire) script speaks for itself in terms of what Belfort’s problems are; the audience will come to its own realization about whether this carefree, money-driven life of debauchery is all its cracked up to be. Scorsese also understands his role is as storyteller, not moral arbiter. He doesn’t go over the top to prove how bad or despicable Belfort and his associates behaved, but to show the ups as well as the downs.
In fact, Scorsese and his 21st century muse, DiCaprio, actually manage to make Belfort a likable guy. He’s fun and he doesn’t treat anyone badly for so much of the film, nor does he engage in illegal activity in a deceitful way. He even truly and believably loves his two wives in the film, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), his first wife, and Naomi (Margot Robbie), the bombshell who utterly captivates him. The film avoids the details or moments behind his decision to launder money, painting him as not a guy who chooses to do wrong, but who did bad things because his passion and gusto for making money and living life the way he wanted blinded him to his own wrongdoing. The fact that a moment in the film in which Belfort gets caught elicited gasps from the audience means the film has done its job creating a complicated character portrait.
“Wolf” takes this approach to not just Belfort, but all aspects of the story, both in script and direction. Winter and Scorsese are both very interested in the notion of the drive for wealth and success being a matter of biology as opposed to money being something we are conditioned to desire. This is not a film content to just show the rise and fall of a ridiculous man and pretend it’s something new.
Hill, who took minimum salary to be in the film, proves to be a real bargain. Somehow, he has managed to fit his comedic style into a role in a dramatic film (can’t quite call it a dramatic role) and create a totally different character that stands on its own. What he does with Donnie is the very definition of making a part your own. Are he and DiCaprio the new Pesci and DeNiro? It’s a legitimate comparison.
For a film that amounts to an overly long bacchanal, “The Wolf of Wall Street” manages to be thought-provoking and artistic thanks to one of the masters. It might not walk away with many awards, but it will deservedly win some people’s votes for best of the year and deserves to be grouped in that category overall.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Terence Winter, Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler