A brazen three-hour cinematic bender of sex and drugs set to the tune of financial chaos, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is undoubtedly the craziest movie of Martin Scorsese’s career. With an untamed energy that dwarfs any of his crime dramas, Scorsese’s raucous, exhausting display is driven by an eager commitment to vulgarity. As stock market scammer Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio’s unfettered ferocity meshes with Scorsese’s aim of exploring Belfort’s crafty early nineties rise. Turning his memoir into a vivid portrait of the hedonistic excesses associated with unregulated wealth, “The Wolf of Wall Street” amps up an absurd volume of entertainment value. But it also suffers from an overabundance of the qualities that elevate it to such ridiculous heights. Scorsese depicts his maniacal subjects far better than he interrogates their mania.
Terence Winter’s screenplay provides a loose structure for Scorsese’s wildly improvised tale, which opens in the midst of a stockbroker office party before sketching out Belfort’s origin story. It takes little time to establish that Belfort will be our guide to the mayhem, which in its opening minutes finds the character careening down the highway in a sports car while receiving fellatio from his trophy wife before crashing a helicopter into the front lawn of his mansion. As Belfort narrates this brash introduction to his reckless lifestyle, Scorsese unleashes a slew of stylistic bells and whistles: freeze frames, slo-mo, a blaring rock soundtrack and snazzy camerawork set the stage for a tale of debauchery that refuses to let up.
Certainly a funhouse for Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, “The Wolf of Wall Street” feels both totally slick and assaultive, an apt tone for Belfort’s self-destructive world. For sheer liveliness, it ranks as the most robust teaming for DiCaprio and Scorsese, and provides ample terrain for Jonah Hill to diversify his range in a supporting role as Belfort’s wildcard business partner.
While not as refined as “The Departed,” it has a lot more gall. DiCaprio and Scorsese compensate for the lethargic stretches of “Shutter Island” and “The Aviator” by bringing a demented vigor to each moment. The resulting bravado gels nicely with the material while echoing the gritty qualities of Scorsese’s earlier works. Harkening back to the jittery sleazeballs of “Mean Streets,” Belfort and company decontextualize the usual Scorsese brand of crime by turning it into a cartoonish office farce. Until the FBI catches up, these swindlers are more liberated in their savage pursuits than any other clandestine lawbreakers in the Scorsese oeuvre.
Yet while “The Wolf of Wall Street” is sometimes hard to take and unapologetically erratic, Scorsese and Winter capably establish how things got that way. The details of their story draws on more real incidents than meets the eye — including bullying office tactics that included the devouring of a negligent employee’s goldfish, as well party guests that included costumed little people and at least one monkey. Kinky prostitutes and cocaine fly freely. The orgiastic display makes Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” look downright minimalist.
Many of these incidents stem from Belford’s actual account of his antics, which kicked into high gear in his twenties after he launched the Long Island-based “boiler room” firm Stratton Oakmont. Concocting a scheme to drive up the price of shares with specious hype and then cashing in on them, Belfort and his cohort Danny Porush — played by Hill under the fictionalized name Donny Azoff — pulled in upwards of $200 millions for their “pump and dump” scheme before landing jail time in the middle of the decade. Flashing back to the initially overwhelmed young Belfort during his first Wall Street gig, the movie quickly lays out his rapid transition into a capitalist psychopath. “Money doesn’t just buy you a better life,” he asserts. “It makes you a better person.” The irony of that statement is it arrives as we witness its opposite effect.
In fact, “The Wolf of Wall Street” lays out the equation of corruption almost too neatly, with Belfort getting schooled in the ways of his new profession from a chest-thumping Matthew McConaughey as one of his earlier office mentors. In a fleeting but crucial cameo, McConaughey lays out the rules of succeeding in the profession — a zany laundry list that includes various narcotics and sexual dealings — which is more than enough to set Belfort off and running.
After the devastating Black Monday crash of 1987, Belfort manages to funnel his lessons from the bottom of the totem pole to climb straight to the top. Before long, he’s surrounded by a new wife, fresh digs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in escort charges. Largely restricted to Belfort’s point of view (even, most memorably, when he’s under the influence), “The Wolf of Wall Street” lurches forward as its plot details remain fairly minimal. Only when the FBI grows curious about his scheme does Belfort turn to a similarly cunning Swiss bank accountant (Jean Dujardin, his eyebrow cocked and half-grin frozen) in an attempt to save his riches. While not a fully defined presence, Dujardin gets a chance to match wits with DiCaprio in another amusingly over-the-top scene in which the two men communicate telepathically about their scummy motives.
And that’s just one of several moments where “The Wolf of Wall Street” sets story aside for the sake of letting the actors play. The women are naturally short-shrifted, although Margot Robbie lands some snappy moments as Belfort’s sultry wife. Virtually everyone onscreen in “The Wolf of Wall Street” gets a chance to mess around (even Spike Jonze crops up for a fun cameo), but the cast’s true secret weapon in Jonah Hill. As the wacky, flamboyant Donny, Hill’s most accomplished performance to date exists on an entirely different plane from anything he’s done before. His hyperactive presence is the ideal comic side dish to DiCaprio’s embodiment of a more subdued sociopath.
While DiCaprio never really vanishes into the role, it’s still impressive to watch him swing for the fences. Outdoing his turn as Jay Gatsby, he uses his movie-star persona in service of making the character’s superficial addictions come to life. It’s a starry performance of a guy who believes so thoroughly in his power that he forces it into reality at every moment. When we watch Belfort pantomime sex while courting a client on speaker phone, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the slapstick amusement of his commitment to the performance.
Scorsese complements DiCaprio with an equally zany flair, including one knockout sequence that finds the character wreaking havoc while on Qualuudes. These moments don’t give the movie much of a soul, but the unruliness provides set pieces that compensate for what amounts to a long slog through terrible behavior. Always something of a horror show about the perils of too much money, at its best “The Wolf of Wall Street” explores its corporate targets by transforming their world into a working professional twist on “Animal House.”
But as Scorsese keeps the salaciousness coming — an airplane orgy here, an S&M session there — “The Wolf of Wall Street” diminishes the ability for ideas to win out over the spectacle. There’s no question about the efficacy of Scorsese’s filmmaking prowess, only that he never knows — or doesn’t care — to slow down and deepen the material.
Despite the sexual pageants that beckon comparisons to “Fellini Satyricon,” Scorsese’s best-directed scenes aim for grander visions: An impressively realized boat sequence, in which Belfort gets caught in a storm and refuses to face death sober, stands out for its metaphorical representation of financial uncertainties. Scorsese’s ability to work a major set piece into his story temporarily makes its heft seem worthwhile. But it’s only a single weighty moment in a sea of many more superfluous ones. Thematically speaking, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is often too obvious and never remotely subtle.
Still, the inherently trivial means by which Scorsese foregrounds his protagonists’ insanity pays off in a climax that hints at Belfort’s ability to infect society at large with the same lusts that corrupted him in the first place. While he’s told earlier by a cohort that the FBI “thinks you’re Gordon fucking Gekko,” the movie asserts that he’s something scarier: Belfort’s lasting successes imply not that greed is good, but that it has the power to make its champions invincible. Scorsese makes that point too bluntly and too often, while sometimes celebrating the same excess he’s seemingly trying to condemn. That very ambiguity infuses “The Wolf of Wall Street” with the same overwhelming and dangerous sense of self-determination that afflicts its characters.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With buzz high and the vulgar ingredients generating obvious box office heat, Paramount is bound to see strong returns when “The Wolf of Wall Street” opens Christmas Day. While competition at this time of the year is formidable, the movie seems well-positioned to continue gaining momentum in the new year and remaining a player throughout the rest of Oscar season, when it’s bound to land major nominations (if less likely to score big wins).