The following review is rated NC-17 for mature readers only because a lot of batshit crazy things happen in this movie.
In the immortal words of Rick James, “Cocaine is a helluva drug.” And in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” an outrageous, nearly three-hour-long hedonistic opus and cynical paean to American privilege, greed and debauchery, the characters hoover up mountains and mountains of cocaine. Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoirs about his time running a boiler room on Wall Street, his rise to extreme wealth, his wicked acts of decadence, and his inevitable downfall, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is orgiastic and shocking; a gluttonous smorgasbord of sex, drugs, strippers, depravity and worse. Intensely perverse on many levels, it’s also one of the most darkly hilarious movies of the year. But whether it has anything insightful to say about America, its characters and its universe is debatable.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, an impressionable Wall Street greenhorn who gets a taste of the madness to come through his magnetic, unhinged boss Mark Hanna (yet another terrific, scene-stealing performance by Matthew McConaughey), a chest-beating proselytizer and mentor who espouses the mantras of the day: steal, cheat, bribe, embezzle and swindle whomever you can, because you can, while you can. Hanna’s two-step methodology for coping with the crushing stresses of high risk finance are soon adopted (and perhaps modified slightly) by Belfort as rules to live by: masturbate several times a day and ingest generous amounts of cocaine.
However, when the market crashes in 1987, Belfort’s aspirations crumble before they can even rise. To survive and support his wife (Cristin Milioti), Belfort finds work in the scam of penny stocks (cue a quick Spike Jonze cameo)—a manipulative “pump and dump” scheme that amounts to selling worthless stock to clueless dopes. Suckers are born every minute; Belfort thrives and gets his whistle wet for the taste of preposterous wealth, reckless binges and overindulgence. Soon, the resourceful and canny entrepreneur—quickly becoming a messiah of sales with a legion of disciples behind him—sees no limits and forms his own chop shop brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, that becomes one of the largest in America. As the firm grows, so does Belfort, in ego, self-image, ambition and appetites.
With his right-hand man, Donnie Azoff, by his side (a fantastic Jonah Hill, doing his best Jew-from-Long-Island routine) and several sidekicks of various stripes of repute (Jon Bernthal, Ethan Suplee, P.J. Byrne), Belfort and his crew become the despotic rulers of New York, marching headfirst in a parade of extreme and fanatical excess including drugs, high-end call girls, more drugs, and absurd extravagance. Making himself in Hanna’s image, Belfort transforms into a twisted, sadistic tyrant, drunk on the power of seemingly endless wealth and power where the regular rules of society don’t apply.
Told with the cinematic grammar of “Goodfellas”—voice-over, wall-to-wall contemporary music, kinetic cuts that suggest an overly-caffeinated editor—like Scorsese’s 1990 mob classic, ‘Wolf Of Wall Street’ has a relentless, restless narrative momentum and energy that is aesthetically awe-inspiring, not to mention that it’s deeply engrossing and funny. Like Henry Hill before him, Belfort recounts his own tale often with the similar disbelief of how he got away with it all (though this time often breaking the fourth wall in doing so). Scorsese’s camera whizzes and tracks around like it’s a shark on amphetamines, DiCaprio delivers one of his best maniacal performances, and Hill is an equally remarkable foil.
A dynamic and exhilarating portrait of a modern day Rome (a la “Fellini Satyricon”) the feral ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ rages, pounds and throbs like a riotous maximalist having the time of its life at the greatest party ever staged. If one were to attempt to list out the most debauched and insane moments in the R-rated boundary-pushing picture, one could be here all day. There’s the scene involving sucking cocaine out of a strippers anus, a sequence where Belfort shows off his new wife’s (Margot Robbie) vagina to his amused security guards, a degenerate midget-tossing event, and an incident with two guys riding a train on the “office slut.” A prostitute pulls a candle out of some asses; the list of near-unmentionable and wild acts is endless.
One of the ballsiest and most extreme studio movies to come down the pike in recent years—it’s like Marty’s mobster thug friends threatened to bust the MPAA’s kneecaps; who knows how they didn’t receive a NC-17 rating—for two hours and twenty minutes ‘The Wolf’ seethes with a narcotic-induced fury that is perhaps the most pleasurable and entertaining 140 minutes you’ll see all year. However, Scorsese’s picture is three hours long and features decompression issues when it attempts to gear down from full-blown insanity to something resembling a shockingly sober normality. And its fall from grace is rather half-hearted; like a mild tumble that begins to quickly plateau instead of a precipitous plummet worthy of its ascension. Perhaps that’s because that ascension was corrupt from the get-go. Moreover, this rags-to-riches trajectory is a familiar one, and one could argue a stronger case against avarice could have been made without the empire crumbling, and instead raging into the emptiness of the night (spiritually and emotionally, Paolo Sorrento’s “The Great Beauty” has much more to say about the tragedy of empty decadence, for example).
As an sensory experience, ‘WOWS’ is mostly a terrifically visceral one, a full throttle fast and furious bacchanalia of drug-fueled madness. But as a scathing indictment of American rapacity, it isn’t particularly deep or resonant beyond the exterior. Like the superficial memoir, all exploits and escapades, ‘WOWS’ is much more interested in illustrating the volatile firecracker it rides to the top, but there’s a recognizably fizzling feeling to the lukewarm last act. Scorsese’s picture feels much less inspired when grappling with the crushing grey of sobriety and consequence. Additionally, other than depicting Belfort as one who fell victim to hubris and the intoxicating feeling of being unstoppable, the movie never cares to articulate the motivation of this stockbroker turned Caligula-esque madman (themes of class are brushed upon, but never truly explored).
Featuring appearances by Rob Reiner, Shea Whigham, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, and Kyle Chandler who plays an FBI agent ultimately representing the 99% to Belfort’s untouchable elite, in some regards, lack of depth is certainly an issue. Scorsese doesn’t say anything revelatory with familiar themes—the avid hunger for power, wealth, status and the wanton desire to always possess it once attained—they are present, though not as personal and weighty as one might like. Admittedly, late in the game, Scorsese is on point when he fulfills Belfort’s salesmanship, the art of his bullshit, highlighting the stockbroker’s uncanny capacity to captivate and persuade, even once his kingdom is long gone.
Undoubtedly a wild, potent ride, one that unequivocally demonstrates Scorsese isn’t mellowing with age, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is often akin to the abused substance it loves to celebrate: in the throngs of its grips, cocaine is a helluva drug. Everything is special, enhanced and magical, but once the high runs it course, all you’re left with is is that awesome, but fleeting sensation of once being king of the world, now running on empty. [B]