The Wolf of Wall Street is adapted from fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s boom-to-bust memoir of how he talked and snorted his way to millions in the 1990s via his penny stock boiler room Stratton Oakmont. With dwarf tossing, sunk super yachts, and public orgies on trading room floors, Wolf sees Martin Scorsese back to his dynamic best in this journey through the debauched side of New York’s financial sector.
We first meet Belfort (DiCaprio) as a wide-eyed young stockbroker, or pond scum as his superior likes to put it, on his first day at an established Wall Street firm. There he is taken under the mentoring arm of Mark Hana (McConaughey) who encourages him to start taking cocaine and jerking-off twice a day if he wants to be successful. But after losing his job in the aftermath of Black Monday, Belfort starts making a small fortune pushing penny stocks with an aggressive sales technique and realises he can make even more by setting up his own firm, and thus the Wolf of Wall Street, or ‘Wolfie’ to his friends, was born.
It’s easy to see why Scorsese was attracted to this project given his knack for making compelling movies featuring flawed characters (see: Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) and he directs here with an infectious energy that hasn’t been seen from him in a long while, skulking the camera through the heart of Belfort’s increasingly far-fetched escapades to the driving beat of a typically cool soundtrack. He’s also happy to stay with a scene long enough for the characters to really shine through – which explains the slightly laborious 3-hour runtime, and this leads to some excellent performances all round, including a live wire cameo from the ever-resurgent Matthew McConaughey.
Any comparison with Wall Street may be understandable given that Oliver Stone’s masterpiece is still the archetype for excess in the financial sector, but Wolf could also be considered as a companion to Goodfellas and Casino, as Scorsese offers up another cautionary tale of ambition, greed, and most prominently, addiction.
And there’s no greater addict than Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. Needing enough drugs to sedate Manhattan for five days just to get out of bed in the morning, Belfort has an insatiable desire to consume everything: money, power, women, drugs – his poison of choice being Quaaludes, a hypnotic sedative that at one points incapacitates Belfort behind the wheel of his precious white Ferrari in one of Wolf’s outlandishly funny scenes. DiCaprio drives the character with an unleashed performance of prowling charisma, confidently narrating his story (and this is only Belfort’s version of events, after all) in voice-over and direct to camera in between delivering Brave Heart-esque battle cries to his similarly rapacious employees. Belfort is closer to a cult leader than a Tony Montana-type drug lord such is the level of loyalty he engenders in his workers. He seems to thrive off their tribal chants of ‘Wolfie’ every time he takes the floor, his addiction to it explaining why he just can’t walk away; a move that ultimately brings about his downfall.
Some have criticised Wolf for glamourizing the hard-partying lifestyle of Stratton Oakmont’s employees, but that is missing the point. The debauched nature of their actions is depicted with a lurid revulsion, and for every naked prostitute there’s a flabby, leering stockbroker drooling over her because he’s taken so many Quaaludes that his limbs have turned to jelly. The tone is evidently condemnatory and anyone who thinks it’s attractive is just as much of a douche bag as these guys.
Also, the parties really aren’t the worst of it. The real scenes of depravity lie in the Stratton Oakmont boiler room, a sweaty-pit of testosterone where unsuspecting members of the public are pumped for what little cash they have. It’s here the we witness the inhuman contempt these stockbrokers have for their clients, bullying them into doing business while secretly flipping them off or miming anal sex, all to feel the rush of watching their bank balance bulge. This is where they really get their kicks – the salacious shindigs are just an elaborate way to manage the come-down.
As deplorable and disgusting as Belfort and his perverse band of merry men are, it’s our fascination with these characters that Scorsese is shining a light on. It’s not surprise when, after featuring in an unfaltering article likening him to a twisted Robin Hood, Belfort is met by a wave of eager applicants seduced by his way of life, nor when Belfort somehow manages to come out on top (the real Belfort has since reinvented himself as a motivational speaker). It’s a refreshingly honest ending to a movie that never pulls its punches in its lurid depiction of excess, proving that, in life, the bad guy often wins. Especially if he’s rich enough.
Runtime: 179 Minutes Genre: Crime/Biopic Released: 17th January 2014
Director: Martin Scorsese Writers: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie
Click here to watch the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street