Based on the real-life memoir of the same name by ex-stock broker/ex-con Jordan Belfort, Scorsese's latest is easily his most vulgar film which, of course, makes it hugely entertaining, a kind of Scorsese Dice Clay of a movie. But what's the point? Scorsese is foremost a storyteller at this stage in his career and he tends to gravitate towards characters living on the margins. His usual themes of brotherhood and family are here again but toned way down, replaced by Dionysian scenes of public sex and drug use that would make Caligula blush. This is new ground for the director. He rarely has sex scenes in his films and when he does, the act isn't shown. The Wolf of Wall Street
is either some kind of therapeutic release or simply the first script that's presented Scorsese with the, ahem, opportunity.Leonardo DiCaprio
introduces us to his life as Jordan Belfort in the first five minutes of Wolf of Wall Street
: little person-tossing at the office, oral sex on the highway, blowing coke off assorted female body parts. Belfort's a rock star. DiCaprio narrates the prologue, and other parts of the film, breaking the fourth wall like some kind of drug-addled, sex-addicted Ferris Bueller. The effect keeps things lighthearted, a kind of muzzle on the debauchery of what's occurring onscreen.
In flashback we meet Belfort as an ambitious young "connector," someone who puts prospective clients in touch with stock brokers. He learns the ropes from a senior broker, played by Matthew McConaughey
, who tells him the secret is "Revolutions. Keep the clients on the ferris wheel." In other words, keep collecting commissions on reinvestments and never allow them to cash out.
Black Monday kills Belfort's career, however, and he ends up pitching penny stocks on Long Island. In no time, he becomes the office star, selling more shares than anyone ever has. He branches out, setting up his own shop with a gang of idiot childhood buddies and one ambitious toy salesman named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill
). In Azoff, Belfort finds a kindred spirit. They're not only both morally vaccuous, they share an insatiable thirst for money, and more, everything that money can buy. Hill is gangbusters here, a snake in the grass, plump version of Woody Allen skiing the black diamond on Cocaine Mountain. It's a vivid, sometimes disgustingly-so, portrait of a Jewish drug-addict and one very similar to Sean Penn
's performance in Carlito's Way
Together, Belfort and Azoff rule Wall Street, selling worthless stocks for huge commissions and even getting in on Azoff's childhood buddy, Steve Madden's first IPO. They make millions a week and live like boy kings, treating the world like their own personal sandbox. Their success comes at a price, they financially ruin thousands of people's lives who can't afford it. Scorsese doesn't waste time telling us this, however. Instead he focuses on Belfort's pursuit of a beautiful Brooklyn lingerie desinger Naomi (Margot Robbie
) and a FBI agent's (Kyle Chandler
) mounting interest in the young "Wolf of Wall Street" as a Forbes
article dubs him.
Scorsese does direct with restraint, but he still uses slow-motion. The difference is he uses it to maximize laughs. The Wolf
is a comedy above all and slowing the action down once in a while allows us to take in all the fun. This stands in contrast to how the director usually uses it, to add intensity to a shot or scene (as in Raging Bull
). Scorsese's frames are frequently filled with upwards of a dozen people, all in kinetic motion, usually fueled by some kind of drug. It's fantastic watching the details—a drink spilled like an erupting volcano, faces exploding in laughter, thousands of dollars of cocaine thrown in the air like a smoke bomb. The film is one raucous blow out.
While The Wolf
may be unadulterated excess and a chance to live vicariously through a very rich, fun-loving dude, it's also deeply manipulative. One scene where Belfort is supposedly stepping down shows him talking to his entire office like a fanatical cult leader. His minions gaze in awe. Belfort recounts the time he hired one young broker, a single mother who needed tuition money. Belfort tells the tale behind a guise of righteousness and it's emotional watching the woman sob as he talks.
Is Scorsese making Belfort a hero? That may be a stretch, but since there's never any talk of all the people this guy ruined in order to make his money, there're few other conclusions. It's one thing to deify Howard Hughes (The Aviator
), who actually contributed immensely to humankind, but Scorsese's interest in Belfort is confusing. The broker is no Scarface. This was a real guy who made millions off the pain of others. If you want to see DiCaprio smoke crack with Jonah Hill, by all means, it's hilarious. Just don't expect Scorsese to probe the morality of these characters. He's just here for the party.