The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s latest take on the American hoodlum, a species the filmmaker returns to time and again in films such as Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino, and Gangs of New York. Here the thugs wield not guns and cudgels but telephones and the art of the hard sell to fleece victims from their money, sure as any lowlife pickpocket. Based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort (adapted for the screen by Terence Winter, the primary writer and producer of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire), Scorsese’s film chronicles this young stockbroker’s untimely arrival on Wall Street just prior to the bottom falling out of the system on Black Monday in 1987; Belfort’s reinvention as a broker of speculative penny stocks, where his commission was 50%; and his formation of his own firm with the distinguished-sounding name Stratton Oakmont, where he became a multimillionaire by his mid-20s. Belfort’s life of excess – drugs, women, schemes – comprises the bulk of the movie, until his downfall at the hand of a dogged FBI agent, and Belfort’s later reemergence as a promotional speaker.
The dwarf-tossing contest on the stock brokerage’s floor, which is depicted in the film’s opening sequence (before the story backtracks to tell the tale of how things became so crazed), serves as an instant alert to the level of debauchery ahead. Belfort’s outsize appetites make Gordon Gekko’s greed seem tame by comparison. As Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio (in the actor’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese) delivers some of the finest work of his career, careening from cocaine- and morphine-fueled highs to the film’s most memorable sequence as he crawls in a Quaalude-induced stupor from a country club to his Ferrari and proceeds to drive home. (The sequence is practically the inverse of the jacked-up, climactic sequence in GoodFellas, which culminates in the bust of Ray Liotta’s character.) DiCaprio is crazed, funny, imperious, and possessed in this, his second portrayal this year of a Long Island tycoon (how quickly The Great Gatsby fades). Wonderful performances abound throughout the film, including supporting work by Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey (in his one unforgettable, emblematic scene), and cameos from familiar faces such as author Fran Lebowitz, former detective Bo Dietl, and filmmaker Spike Jonze dot the landscape.
Seemingly taking its cue from Belfort’s shenanigans, the film is completely without modulation. It starts with all the knobs cranked up to 11 and remains that way for the next three hours. While what’s onscreen is never uninteresting, its unrelentingness is exhausting. Complete with a full array of Scorsesean camera flourishes (brought to fruition by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto) and carpeted with several racks of well-chosen rock tunes (hats off to music supervisor Robbie Robertson), The Wolf of Wall Street never loosens its grip. Reportedly, Scorsese’s first cut of the film was four hours long, and I can’t wait to someday see that original cut to find out whether it has more dramatic ebb and flow than this current release. As is, The Wolf of Wall Street matches its subject’s excesses to a wearying and stupefying extent. All should be well if you just remember to buckle up your jet pack before launch. (Opens Wednesday, December 25.)
The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Ethan Suplee