The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s best movie since 1995’s Casino, and that’s saying something as Marty’s output is consistently very good. The film, based upon the life of stock broker Jordan Belfort, is a completely out-of-control three-hour spectacle of sex, drugs, greed, and comeuppance. The cuts from an NC-17 to R rating have been well-publicized, yet it’s still difficult to believe this version wasn’t handed the dreaded NC-17. Perhaps it’s the fact that Scorsese and company play the whole thing off with the tone of a crazy frat party.
The film follows Belfort (DiCaprio) from his days as a green college grad all the way up to the domination of Stratton Oakmont, his firm that defrauded millions of dollars from countless investors. Prostitutes, Quaaludes, cocaine, and booze were practically givens on a daily basis at the no-holds-barred office. His off-site parties were similarly off-the-chain as his wealth grew and suspicions from the federal government mounted.
Scorsese and writer Terence Winter divide the narrative into thirds; the “how” of what Belfort and his firm did, the greed and F-you attitude that led to Belfort’s luxury lifestyle, and finally his misgivings catching up to him. The first hour is the most fascinating, as Belfort is temporarily out of the game but re-enters by selling penny stocks to suckers at 50% commission. He eventually trains a rag tag team of brokers, including new friend Donnie Azoff (Hill), in the art of selling absolutely worthless stock. Thus begins his empire.
This type of territory has certainly been covered before in films like 2000’s Boiler Room (also influenced by Belfort’s story) and even 2011’s Margin Call, but never with such gusto and reckless abandonment. Scorsese has said that he wants to put the audience in the party, as opposed to leaving them as outsiders. He has accomplished that goal as no punches are pulled. Belfort was a self-described drug addict to cocaine and Quaaludes, usually washed down with liquor, and the film brilliantly portrays his addiction to the excess and ultimate personal and relationship issues that result from this kind of lifestyle. That doesn’t happen without making it look like the best time ever for two hours, however. It’s difficult to believe any of these guys are still alive if the drug use depicted is accurate.
Just when you think he can’t get any better, Leonardo DiCaprio turns in the performance of his career. Playing Belfort as a total loose cannon that all of his employees worship, DiCaprio goes all out in a physically demanding role in a film that requires him to carry it. An extended scene of physical comedy in the film’s third act shows you just how good DiCaprio is and how, with anyone else, the energy would not have been as high. Brilliant supporting turns are made by Jonah Hill as Belfort’s right-hand man and Margot Robbie as his troubled wife. Matthew McConaughey, in keeping with being on basically every movie set in 2013, turns in a memorable extended cameo as the man who started Belfort’s path toward greed and fraud.
As much fun as the whole thing is, you can’t help but feel like the screenplay let Belfort off the hook for all the damage he did. Belfort ended up spending a paltry 22 months in prison for his crimes and it just goes to show that if you’re going to go to the effort to ruin lives, do it with a white collar. As a retelling of his rise to power and influence, The Wolf of Wall Street is as electric as any movie in years. It’s no doubt the craziest movie Scorsese has ever made, and one of his finest.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 180 Minutes
Rating: R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2013
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter. Based upon the book of the same name by Jordan Belfort.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Jon Bernthal