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.