Common wisdom says that money can’t buy happiness, but common wisdom never spooned cocaine into a flexible young woman’s anus. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) knows better than that, and he also knows that power, expensive things, drugs, women, and drugs inserted in women are all for the taking when you have money. He heads to Wall Street, and after a quick business lunch with a mentor (Matthew McConaughey) he sets about building an investment firm complete with a team of driven, egotistical but slavish pricks shaped in his own image.
His best and brightest employee is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and together they build an empire built on penny stock commissions, ersatz testosterone, and the broken dreams of lower to middle class Americans. Despite affectations of friendship, simulations of love, and words of confidence from the man’s own mouth, Belfort cares for no one but himself. His climb to the top (or just as correct, to the bottom) comes with hundreds of willing and thousands of unknowing Sherpas, but only he knows it’s a one-man venture.
Welcome to one of the year’s best comedies. Welcome to Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street.
There are those who will claim Scorsese’s latest is not a comedy, but to think that displays the same kind of willful ignorance that led blue collar families to blindly invest in Belfort’s investing schemes. The film has a message that can be summed up easily enough in its representation of Wall Street brokers as vile, selfish, dill-holes whose antics nearly brought down the economy. They’re terrible people who represent the worst of American ambition, but while that point is made clear throughout it comes couched in a big, fat, constantly moving, and at times fairly broad comedy. Terence Winter‘s script is as much to blame for the film’s simplicity as he is to thank for the laughs, but it’s the performances that strap a little person to your funny bone and throw it repeatedly at a dartboard made of belly laughs.
McConaughey shines the earliest (and the briefest, unfortunately). He’s still wearing a hint of the gaunt facial features from his Dallas Buyers Club turn, but his focus and rhythmic sensibilities, both comedic and acoustic, are focused and filled with glee. Hill once again proves his worth as a valuable sidekick, and while his character veers dangerously close to shtick it’s an incredibly entertaining act all the same. He comes complete with false teeth and accent, both ways for Azoff to add to the illusion that he’s someone different than he actually is, and Hill nails the callous and caustic desire behind that charade.
As great as they and the rest of the cast are though this is DiCaprio’s film. He hasn’t really played a role so baldly comedic since his Growing Pains days in the early ’90s, and it’s a revelation how good he can be when it comes to earning laughs. He’s zippy and amped up in most scenes, but the highlight is a ten minute long Quaalude-induced bout of physical comedy that shows a real dedication to his performance… albeit not as much as the scene featuring the candle between his ass cheeks does. It’s doubtful the real Belfort was anywhere near as entertaining as DiCaprio makes him out to be.
There’s no character arc to Belfort, but while that would normally be something to criticize here it’s also kind of the point. Winter’s screenplay is based on public records and the man’s own memoir, and Belfort is quite clearly not open to change or growth. The film makes a weak and abrupt effort early on to show the “good” man he was before becoming corrupted by Wall Street’s greener pastures, but the majority of the 180 minute run-time sees him staying the course as a self-centered sociopath unable to resist anything remotely resembling a carnal desire.
A lack of character growth in this context is understood and expected, but that doesn’t excuse the film’s unnecessary length. To be clear, I’m not saying the film is too long, I’m saying it’s longer than necessary. Scorsese and friends say absolutely nothing in three hours that they couldn’t have said in two. The visual display of Caligula-like bacchanalia is ongoing, near constant from beginning to end, with Belfort and friends engaging in one or more immoral deeds in just about every scene. The repetitiveness adds nothing to the narrative, but that said, there isn’t a boring minute to be found here. There are several that could have been cut, but they’re never less than visually entertaining and occasionally jaw-droppingly funny.
And therein lies the core of the film’s appeal. Everything, from the wonderfully comedic performances to the electric editing-style to the nude women and ridiculous acts of onscreen idiocy, is aimed towards pure entertainment. That’s not to say Scorsese and Winter are reveling in Belfort’s exploits, they’re not. But as has been Scorsese’s modus operandi throughout most of his career this is offered simply as a window into a world most of us will never experience firsthand. Goodfellas and Casino did the same thing but with far more severe crimes and criminal types. Scorsese isn’t interested in tacking on punishment for Belfort that didn’t really happen, but one gets the sense that much of the “fun” stuff presented here is probably embellished more than a little bit. The source material is Belfort’s own memoir after all.
The Wolf of Wall Street may just be the year’s most energetic and visually alive film, and that’s an incredible accomplishment for a 180 minute movie and its 71 year old director. Like Belfort himself the film would like you to think it has more to say than it actually does, but in this instance it’s a mostly forgivable sin as time spent watching the movie is time spent laughing, smiling, and shaking your head in incredulous disbelief at the folly of others.
The Upside: Fantastically funny in dialogue and physical comedy; incredible energy; Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, and Margot Robbie are all standouts
The Downside: Doesn’t say anything in three hours it couldn’t have said in two, and even then isn’t really saying all that much; setups that go nowhere; bad CGI
On the Side: The real Danny Porush (aka Donnie Azoff) and his son dispute much of what the film (and Belfort’s memoir) alleges. This surprises no one.