January 10, 2014 by Josh Weiss
In their fifth collaboration, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a movie that makes “The Great Gatsby” look like a kid’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Released Dec. 25, the biographical dark comedy was adapted from a memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort, a former New York stockbroker who made millions of dollars in the late 1980s and early ‘90s through securities fraud, stock market manipulation and worthless penny stocks. After his first family-friendly film, 2011’s “Hugo” (his personal love letter to moviemaking), Scorsese returns to perfect R-rated form by drawing themes and storytelling tactics from “Goodfellas ” and “Casino.” With the screenplay written by “Boardwalk Empire” creator Terence Winter, the final result is a riotously funny satire of American capitalism (and the hedonistic lifestyles we all wish we could live) that is both offensive and provocative.
DiCaprio is at the top of his game as Belfort (the film’s protagonist and narrator), in a performance that showcases his licentiousness, charm and impeccable comic timing. Like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” DiCaprio’s character narrates through gratuitous voiceovers, often breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly. In 1987, he starts out as a naive fledgling Wall Street broker with aspirations of becoming rich. At an unconventional and hysterical lunch scene, his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) declares that the only way to survive the job is a healthy diet of cocaine, prostitutes and masturbation.
Unfortunately, Belfort loses his job on October 19, 1987 (also known as Black Monday), when stock markets crashed around the world. He finds asylum in a Long Island call center, where he sells worthless penny stocks to poor schmoes who don’t know any better. Here, we see Belfort’s true calling as a natural, smooth-talking salesman, selling thousands of dollars of garbage stocks, assuring his customers that their only regret will be that they didn’t buy more. Leo’s acting chops couldn’t be better along with his jet black hair and New York accent as he lays on the B.S. like melted butter on hot toast, reminding us of the con man he portrayed in “Catch Me If You Can.”
Soon, he opens his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, with Donnie Azoff, a sleazy children’s furniture salesman who quits his job to join the enticing world of finance. Azoff, based on the real life character of Danny Porush, is portrayed by Jonah Hill, who reaches new comedic heights with a Long Island dialect and set of fake pearly whites. Harkening back to “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” Azoff is the Pesci to Belfort’s De Niro. Along with the help of a ragtag bunch of lowdown pot dealers, Belfort turns the firm into a billion dollar company (illegally, of course), starting in a garage, but eventually expanding to a bona fide Manhattan headquarters thanks to a predatory sales blueprint. This aggressive battle plan gains him the moniker “The Wolf of Wall Street” in a Forbes article that drives the popularity of his firm through the roof, causing ambitious young brokers to throw their resumes at him. He even recruits his father, “Mad” Max: a rib tickling Rob Reiner as an angry old Jewish man who doesn’t enjoy late night calls. Still, some of the movie’s best moments involve Belfort giving rousing speeches to his underlings, allowing DiCaprio to go a little off his rocker, ranting about Willy Wonka and wrecking balls. At these points, he’s like Gordon Gekko on steroids.
From here, “Wolf” goes absolutely berserk with marching bands and strippers celebrating successful weeks of selling stocks. Like any classic Scorsese flick, there’s a good dose of drug abuse and infidelity as Belfort snorts copious amounts of cocaine while cheating on and divorcing his wife (“How I Met Your Mother” newbie Cristin Milioti) for Naomi (Margot Robbie), a blonde bombshell who draws faint parallels to Sharon Stone’s Ginger from Scorsese’s “Casino.” Belfort also develops an addiction to Quaalude, which lends itself to a great scene involving Belfort and a small set of stairs. A usual Scorsese picture would involve murder, but this one has people getting laid. Walking the thin line between an R and NC-17 rating, the movie features an inordinate amount of sex scenes with just about every character in the movie, in just about any location: in the office, on airplanes, in Las Vegas hotel rooms, etc. A whole sequence is even devoted to Belfort explaining different categories of prostitutes. There’s also such an abundance of cursing that you may feel the need to wash out your own mouth with soap after your viewing. Then again, when has Martin Scorsese ever been known for restraint when it comes to his movies?
Overall, the film is a little “vignetty,” stringing together little episodes of what Belfort does with his money. Thankfully, “Wolf” doesn’t really go too deep into the complex economic minutiae involved in selling stock and securities fraud. Every time he starts to go into a long winded discussion, Belfort confides that no one cares about such particulars. And, in a way, he’s right. We just want to watch him have fun, spending more money than he knows what to do with: buying yachts with helicopters and renting dwarves so they can be thrown at targets. Things heat up when he is pursued by Patrick Denham, an incorruptible FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights”).
As usual, Scorsese garnishes each scene with a decade-specific song from artists like Billy Joel, Cypress Hill, The Lemonheads and Plastic Bertrand, which perfectly fit each moment. Filmed digitally, Rodrigo Prieto’s (“Argo”) cinematography is as crisp as the bills that DiCaprio stashes in Swiss bank accounts with the help of Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”). It’s filled with epic, sweeping, one-take shots that are trademark Scorsese while Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as manic (in a good way) as one of Belfort’s drug-induced states.
Before the film’s release, the trailer only gave a small inkling of how crazy this movie would be as DiCaprio walked onscreen to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” Clocking in at a whopping three hours (the original cut was supposedly six), “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a tour de force that never seems to drag on or run out of steam, but instead gains momentum with each passing moment as each set piece tries to top the next with crazier and more hilarious scenarios. Despite being 71, Scorsese has proven that he and his movies only get wilder with age, going straight for the jugular, unafraid to tackle the taboo and uncomfortable subjects we try to hide from every day. With this feature, he’s proven himself to be “The Wolf of Hollywood.”