At twenty-two ambitious stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts work at L.F. Rothschild, one of the most prestigious firms on Wall Street only to find himself caught up in one of the most calamitous economic disasters of modern times: Monday, October 19th, 1987 a.k.a. Black Monday. Newly unemployed amidst a hostile climate for brokers he takes a seemingly dead-end job with a Long Island boiler room dealing in penny stocks. To Belfort's surprise he discovers this two-bit market is largely ignored by regulators and enables brokers to grab a whopping fifty percent commission. Belfort's aggressive pitching style nets a small fortune which he parlays into his own company, Stratton Oakmont. Aided by right-hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a group of friends who honed their business skills in the marijuana trade, Belfort's amoral “pump-and-dump” strategy earns them millions overnight. Flush with cash he embraces rampant hedonism: a trophy wife in former model Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), a luxurious home on the Gold Coast, lavish parties, non-stop sex with glamorous prostitutes, and every kind of drug he can get his hands on. Which is a lot. For Jordan Belfort life becomes an orgy of decadence that seems like it will never end... until his activities attract the attention of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler).
Hailed as a masterpiece in the States, the fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio drew a more muted response elsewhere with many unable to get past the sheer loathsome amorality of its central protagonist. Adapted from the book written by Jordan Belfort himself, there is an air of smug self-congratulation about the movie seemingly intended to evoke the mindset of the subject himself. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter invite viewers to be appalled but also more than a little awestruck over the orgiastic antics of Belfort, Azoff and company. “Their money was better off in my pocket”, Belfort remarks of his victims at one point. “I knew how to spend it better.” A game of human darts with midgets, a parade involving a marching band complete with animals and scantily-clad strippers, an orgy aboard a jet-plane, a drug-addled ocean voyage involving a close call with a fifty-foot wave, and a certain infamous scene involving a candlestick rank among the salacious set-pieces. Served up in a fashion even more manic than the audio-visual assault in Goodfellas (1990), of which The Wolf of Wall Street is almost a parody delivering a white collar take on a similar rise-and-fall true crime yarn complete with tragicomic love story and sardonic, unrepentant fourth wall-breaking narration.
As co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio stated his intention to produce a modern day Caligula (1979). Which means the film is less a study of greed and its impact upon the events that caused the global financial meltdown. It has as much to do with what people do with obscene amounts of money as the depths they will go to obtain it. However, aside from graphic sexual depravity, Scorsese's film has less in common with the infamous Tinto Brass opus than it does with Fellini's Satyricon (1969). Both films follow the exploits of self-serving, unsympathetic adventurers as they indulge in all manner of decadence while around them a once-mighty civilization crumbles. DiCaprio, himself a real-life victim of a financial scam, sets out to lacerate the industry confirming our worst fears about bankers and brokers as foul mouthed, amoral, money obsessed, drug-addled sexual deviants.
Money is simply the drug that fuels what people like Belfort and Azoff are. If they had no money they would still be the same people only on a smaller scale. In the midst of a stellar cast including Matthew McConaughey (who also co-wrote and performs the closing theme song with Robbie Robertson!) as Belfort's shady mentor (who advises a life of drug abuse and non-stop sex is the path to success), Rob Reiner as his father with an absurdly explosive temper, Jon Favreau as his security advisor, Joanna Lumley as Naomi's aristocratic aunt (who involves herself in Belfort's scam and shares an unexpected flirty exchange) and Jean Dujardin as the Swiss banker who proves as wily as Belfort, the real breakout star turn comes from relatively unknown Australian actress Margot Robbie who gives a performance as spectacular as she looks. Robbie cannily draws Naomi as yet another trapping of success that holds Belfort in thrall. Thus reinforcing Scorsese's strance that far from a strong man, Belfort is simply in thrall to one substance after another. Money is just there to fuel his addiction to sex, drugs and excess.
Although Scorsese never enables us to empathize with Belfort he does, to some degree, invite us to grudgingly admire his ingenuity and in a weird way his honesty. Belfort is upfront about his venality and addictions which lead Scorsese and Winter to posit their theory that within a system this corrupt, why wouldn't a monster like Belfort manage to thrive? It helps to look at The Wolf of Wall Street not as one of Scorsese's searing dramas but as his thematically ambitious contribution to the recent trend in comedies following The Hangover (2008) wherein self-serving oafs enact one outrage or atrocity after another. As such this is undoubtedly Scorsese's most successfully realized comedy. The King of Comedy (1983) might be his most nuanced and provocative but The Wolf of Wall Street is far funnier. DiCaprio exhibits a hitherto unheralded physical comedy gifts in an hilarious sequence wherein a drug-addled Belfort struggles to navigate a path from his country club to his car so he can confront an equally off-his-face Donnie Azoff. What follows is a slapstick set-piece for the ages complete with priceless reference to Popeye the Sailor.
After ninety minutes of excess with Belfort trampling everyone underfoot the arrival of Agent Denham redresses the moral balance. Yet even here Scorsese draws Denham as mildly envious of Belfort's success. He ends the film on a sea of eager faces hanging on Belfort's every word reinforcing the uncomfortable message that some people still want to see a winner, no matter how odious, in the hope of absorbing the secret to get rich quick.
American writer and director who emerged as one of the brightest and most vital of the generation of filmmakers who came to prominence during the 1970s with his heartfelt, vivid and at times lurid works. After deciding against joining the priesthood, he turned to his other passion - movies - and started with short efforts at film school until Roger Corman hired him to direct Boxcar Bertha.
However, it was New York drama Mean Streets that really made Scorsese's name as a talent to watch, and his succeeding films, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (which won Ellen Burstyn an Oscar and is the only Scorsese movie to be made into a sitcom) and the cult classic Taxi Driver (starring Robert De Niro, forever associated with the director's work) only confirmed this.
In the nineties, Scorsese began with the searing gangster saga Goodfellas, and continued with the over-the-top remake of Cape Fear before a change of pace with quietly emotional period piece The Age of Innocence. Casino saw a return to gangsters, and Kundun was a visually ravishing story of the Dalai Lama. Bringing Out the Dead returned to New York for a medical tale of redemption, and Gangs of New York was a muddled historical epic.
Still the Best Director Oscar eluded him, but the 2000s gave what many saw as his best chance at winning. Slick Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator didn't make it, but remake of Infernal AffairsThe Departed finally won him the prize. Outlandish thriller Shutter Island then provided him with the biggest hit of his career after which he surprised everyone by making family film Hugo - another huge hit.
This was followed by an even bigger success with extreme broker takedown The Wolf of Wall Street, and a return to his religious origins with the austere, redemption through torture drama Silence. Despite being an advocate of the theatrical experience, he joined forces with Netflix for The Irishman, reuniting him with De Niro for one last gangster epic. He also directed Michael Jackson's Bad music video.
It's like the film says, "Here's the Devil, he's terrible, come and see how terrible he is" for three whole hours, but the wickedness is of such abundant variety of variations on a theme that it's compelling: we're like the saps in the last scene, "Do go on!"
That said, I thought its humour was overrated, I didn't laugh much because it was closer to a horror movie if you're thinking about the victims, which Belfort notably hardly ever does: I think we only see one in the entire running time. He's too busy firing up his staff as if he were a one man Rat Pack in Vegas in front of a crowd of rowdy businessmen on vacation. Every so often there's a scene which reminds you what a master Scorsese is, but even he is enticed by the Devil's charms. A very telling film for our times, to coin a cliché.