The stockbroker and financial investor Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) made $49 million by the time he was 26. Judging by The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a miracle he lived that long. Early in his career, when he was young and wide-eyed and married to a pretty hair stylist (Cristin Milioti), Jordan got some advice over lunch with a billionaire (a chest-thumping Matthew McConaughey) he took to heart: The two keys to success on Wall Street are cocaine and hookers. Keep plenty of both around, all the time, and you will become a Master of the Universe.
Jordan takes note of the tip, but he doesn’t really believe it at first. A few years later, by the time he was sailing around the world in his 170-foot yacht (complete with helicopter landing pad) and his model-beautiful second wife (Margot Robbie), there wasn’t a drug Jordan hadn’t abused, an attractive woman he hadn’t slept with and a party he had thrown that hadn’t turned into a deranged bacchanalia. Jordan’s meteoric rise to success, which began by swindling ordinary people with penny stocks and grew to the point where he guided the IPO launch of footwear magnate Steve Madden, is depicted by Martin Scorsese as a raucous wallow in vulgarity, excess and debauchery. If it had been a drama, The Wolf of Wall Street might have been unwatchable: There’s simply too much of everything. But Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter ( The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) hit on the genius idea to turn the story into a riotous comedy, one that keeps topping itself everytime you think it can’t possibly get crazier.
Scorsese has often ventured into dark comic territory before — there are bits in Goodfellas and Casino that are as hilarious as they are horrifying, and The King of Comedy makes you laugh as often as you cringe — but he has never made a movie this loose and spirited and insane and fun. This isn’t a personal Scorsese picture: Unlike his films about Italian-American culture, mobsters, loners and movies, he feels little but disdain for Jordan and his merry band of suit-and-tie thieves (including an unhinged Jonah Hill, rocking some Elton John-sized eyewear and blindingly white capped teeth). That emotional distance allows the director to cut loose in ways he never has before, which will inevitably lead some viewers to wring their hands and cluck about immorality and reprehensibleness (at a screening for Academy members earlier this week, someone yelled “Shame on you!” at the director as he stepped out of an elevator).
But to confuse the contact-high the onscreen revelry imparts as the filmmakers’ approval is a misguided reading of the movie. This is a film about awful people doing horrible things, only instead of guns and violence, they trade on decadence and power. The only respectable character in The Wolf of Wall Street is Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent who becomes suspicious of Jordan’s flamboyance and launches the investigation that eventually toppled his empire. Scorsese lets their first scene together run for a while, so we see how shrewd and intelligent Patrick is at toying with his prey and how arrogant and foolish Jordan is by thinking this is just another problem he can solve by throwing money at it.
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There are several longer-than-usual scenes (by Scorsese’s standards) in The Wolf of Wall Street, including some rally-the-troops speeches Jordan gives to his tribe of savage financiers that help you understand why they worshipped him like a deity. It wasn’t just because he made them rich: DiCaprio, who has rarely been better, taps into the verbal dexterity and irresistible charisma of a man who could sell a donkey to a race car driver over the phone if he wanted to.
The movie runs three hours, but the time flies, and the antics never get repetitious. Late in the film comes one of the most astonishing scenes of the year — a lengthy, gut-busting setpiece in which DiCaprio reveals a tremendous gift for physical comedy he had never hinted at before. After playing so many moody, tortured types, the actor seems happy and energized by the opportunity to experiment and have fun, and Scorsese channels his energy into this fiery, exuberant carnival of a movie.
The director even lands his closing shot, something he hasn’t always done well, leaving no doubt how he feels about Jordan, abandoning him in a perpetual hell of his own making. The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a celebration of bad behavior: It’s a condemnation. Scorsese just allows you to share in the fun young millionaires can afford to have and lets you get drunk with them. Eventually, though, the party must end, as they always do, and most will leave the theater exhilarated and relieved at being part of the 99 percent.