Based on Jordan Belfort‘s own accounts, The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an aspiring stockbroker whose discovery of penny stocks, and how they could be used to earn a broker far more profit than an investor, led to his meteoric rise and eventual downfall. Reuniting with DiCaprio and choosing The Sopranos‘ Terence Winter to adapt Belfort’s book, director Martin Scorsese‘s three-hour comedy highlights the absurdity and tragedy of Belfort’s life on Wall Street while making a pretty strong argument for the entire industry’s inherently-flawed nature which only feeds on humanity’s worst impulses.
Three hours is too long for a comedy, any comedy, but I’ll give credit to Winter and Scorsese for producing the funniest movie I saw all year. Part of this is due to the nature of the story and how Scorsese chooses to frame it for maximum effect and part is in the casting. Jonah Hill (as Belfort’s best-friend and partner) and Matthew McConaughey (in the far smaller role of Belfort’s mentor) both provide bizarre, but also often hilarious, moments.
Rob Reiner and Jon Favreau are also quite entertaining in their roles as Belfort’s father and attorney. The script also gives us Kyle Chandler in his usual stereotypical performance of the FBI agent who would eventually bring the man down and Jean Dujardin as a Swiss banker (who may or may not be a worse human being than Belfort). And I must mention Margot Robbie who certainly grabbed my attention as Belfort’s second wife Naomi. In a debaucherous tale of sex and drugs, Robbie’s fearless and (often undressed) performance certainly stands out.
During the first-half of the film Belfort often breaks the fourth-wall talking directly to the audience in a Ferris Bueller-style walk-through of his world. It’s an interesting choice that works because it helps highlight the inherent ridiculousness in what is actually a fairly dark story. Although DiCaprio’s narration continues throughout the film (even if it jumps from future to present tense and back again at the drop of a hat) the segments of directly addressing the audience disappear over the final hour of the story.
Performed as a drama The Wolf of Wall Street would be incredibly difficult to watch. But understanding the lesson of Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Winter and Scorsese decide to embrace the absurdity of the story and showcase it for the audience. After all this is a film where characters have a legitimate discussion on how humanly to treat dwarves who they later drunkenly toss into giant targets in the middle of their office which their co-workers (who aren’t drugging or screwing each other into a coma) cheer on.
Despite the immense amount of harm done to both himself (including an amazing sequence involving Quaaludes and his Ferrari), his loved ones, and his investors, the film also offers some small examples of Belfort’s generosity including offering a huge signing bonus to a single mother when she started with his firm and the lengths to which he will go to provide a fun work place. Although these small examples don’t excuse his behavior, they help explain both how Belfort sees himself and the love he engendered from those he employed.
Given its length The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a film that I plan to return to often but for a single viewing it proved both effective and entertaining far longer than I could have reasonably expected. Although far from original (Wall Street, Blow, Glengarry Glen Ross, Arbitrage, Boiler Room, and countless others), the talent both in front and behind the camera help give the well-worn themes a fresh feel. As to how it ranks with Scorsese’s best, I think we’re going to have to wait a few years to see how well the tale of 80’s & 90’s excess and debauchery ages.