His first day working on Wall Street, young stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) accepts an offer to go to lunch with his boss (Matthew McConaughey). Over a martini meal, the older, richer man imparts his basic rule of business: move your clients’ money to your pocket. Not long after that, the firm goes bust in the stock market dip of 1987. Out of work, Belfort doesn’t doubt that core ethos of finance his boss told him. Instead he gets right back in the game, building his own firm bundling penny stocks with blue chips and getting wealthy clients to buy. There are huge commissions off these risky bets. Belfort explains this to us in the narration that runs through The Wolf of Wall Street, but often stops and sneers that it’s all too complicated for us to understand. He has utter contempt for anyone with a paystub south of his. For him, complaining about his yearly salary consists of annoyance that it was just shy of a million a week. To celebrate an earnings milestone, his firm orders a marching band and strippers to march around the offices. As the bacchanal erupts, a secretary is held down and her head is shaved. She’s paid $10,000 for it, told to use the money to buy breast implants. Though Belfort announces before hand that she’s in on the joke, the camera hangs back and watches her clutching the stack of bills, her face awash with turbulent mixed emotions.
Martin Scorsese’s film is a raucous look at Belfort’s rise and the atmosphere of carousing frat boy cruelty that followed his addiction to greed and the enabling economy that allowed him to funnel ever more money after his other addictions: booze, cocaine, sex, pills, power. What Belfort and his crew did to accrue their massive fortunes was legal, at least for a while, and they felt entitled to it, pumping up stock prices artificially before selling them for a huge profit. They worked hard at all this quasi-legal money moving and partied harder. Belfort tells us “money makes you a better person” and really believes it. To him, wealth is proof he’s doing something good. The film sets up some opposition to his suffocating solipsism: his father (Rob Reiner), a blustering guy who tries to pull him back, at least when he’s not too tickled by the unrestrained behavior; and an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) who is sure something is up with the brash new firm and steadfastly investigates. But the humanity etched on these paternal faces doesn’t sink into our narrator. Only Scorsese, with juxtapositions and cutaways, like to a quickly glimpsed crime scene photo of an employee’s future suicide, can cut through Belfort’s cheery smugness. His mindset, the aspirational affluenza of the gospel of prosperity, of monetary might making right, is not just his. It is a poisonous boil on the American psyche and Scorsese is working on a satirical lance.
It hardly feels like taking your medicine. This is probably the most entertaining way of making a movie about insufferably smug, endlessly hungry fattening cats, as a wild, boisterous comedy in which the joke is on them. Stretching out over two hours and fifty-nine minutes, this epic tragicomedy follows Belfort, his business partner (Jonah Hill, with frightening grin of gleaming white oversized chompers), and his hometown buddies (P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee), recruits into the ground floor of his new brokerage firm. As the business quickly grows, they find more ways to funnel money out of their clients’ pockets and into theirs, treating everyone else as property. Belfort trades in one wife (Cristin Milioti) for another (Margot Robbie) and though he tells us he feels bad about it, it’s only for a moment. He and his colleagues abuse and bully their employees, sneak money into tax shelters and down ratholes, pop pills, slam back beers, and call in prostitutes. The screenplay by Terence Winter who, between work as a writer on The Sopranos and the showrunner of Boardwalk Empire, knows a thing or two about criminal entrepreneurism, constructs a screenplay that hurtles forward with digressions and debaucheries and still manages to make sense of how the firm got off the ground in the first place and how it worked its way towards insane profits and a legal implosion. It's all about business as an outlet for unchecked id and how that takes morality and responsibility completely off the table.
The film is loose and freewheeling, growing bigger and overwhelming in its implications. It’s about an entire system that allows such an operation to thrive, a system with a massive disincentive for the greedy and selfish to behave responsibly. They squirrel away large amounts of money in whatever way they want in order to fuel whatever drunken high they’re chasing this week. There is no stopping people who have no guilt, no shame. Even when Belfort has a setback, his confidence carries him through. Once you are filthy rich, you can unapologetically monetize even your most shameful wrongdoings. A key sequence finds Belfort fuming about a magazine hatchet job that labeled him “the Wolf of Wall Street,” writing in no uncertain terms about his firm’s grey-area ethics and frat house atmosphere. He’s angry right up until he arrives at work and finds the lobby stuffed with résumé waving young jobseekers, phones ringing off the hook with prospective clients. His buddies start calling him “Wolfie” affectionately as they generate an ever more powerful cult of personality around their fearless immoral leader.
Full of irredeemable, unapologetic, and unstoppable characters, Scorsese’s masterful command of cinema keeps the whole thing slamming forward with energetic momentum. In his typical style, the film is painted with big bold strokes, a mix of rattling soundtrack cues, varied film stocks, speeds, and aspect ratios, finding rich nuances within. His collaborators bring welcome touches, from Thelma Schoonmaker’s swaggering edits – sloppy without feeling careless – to Rodrigo Prieto’s sleek, sunlit cinematography. This is a film that is taking place in the bright light of day, barely legal acts crossing over the line easily and with little negative consequence in the immediate future. The first time crack is smoked in the film takes place in shadow, Hill and DiCaprio huddled in the dark corner of the frame. But once the high hits they leap away, the camera tracking them into the harsh midday sun outside. They can get away with anything, anytime. The film is vulgar, dripping with sex and drugs and yet little pleasure. It’s a monotonous mechanical need for them and the film circles endlessly overconsumption of one kind or another that sends them spiraling down until the next high.
The Wolf of Wall Street is loose and rattling in its structure. Some scenes as assembled seem to stretch too long and others clip along too quickly, but there’s such an elemental cinematic pleasure seeing Scorsese operating on such a huge scale, developing his theme strongly and confidently and then noodling around, finding dozens upon dozens of variations over the runtime. He watches DiCaprio’s unhinged performance as it wriggles around in all manner of debauched positions, squirming out from under scrutiny to do bad all over again. He clashes with his second wife as Robbie’s strong performance reveals welcome unexpected depths. The trophy wife is not as shiny and shallow as she first appears, forming a key element of the time-release poison pill bitterly dissolving under each scene in the final stretch. Their final scenes together are utterly devastating, one of the few times the film brings his steamroller of desire to a dead stop. The sweep of the film threatens to feel unformed at times, and yet it all comes together in such a clear statement of purpose.
Belfort’s ego is too big to fail. The movie (the events, not the point of view) is based on his autobiography. The final shot finds a group of people eagerly awaiting his insight, desperate to learn his tricks, wanting to become his kind of success. Whatever catharsis I found when some level of legal comeuppance is at long last dealt out in the final minutes of the third hour, is squashed under his unapologetic opportunism, his ability to turn any misfortune into shameless profit. And then there’s the sense that, though this wolf may no longer stalk on Wall Street, the rest of his pack is still out there, as insufferably untouchable as ever. It can’t be a coincidence that a scene of jaw-dropping dehumanizing negotiation – the guys agree that, when it comes to the entertainers hired for an office party, “If we don’t recognize them as people, just the act, then we’re not liable” – devolves into the guys goofily reciting the famous “one of us” chant from Tod Browning’s Freaks. They’re joking about the people they’ve hired, literally scoffing at the plight of the little guy. But it’s clear that Wall Street can be more freakish than any sideshow horror.