“Into the donuts, my boy?”
This is the story of an American antihero: a guy born in the Bronx to working class parents who set off for Wall Street to make a name for himself as a stockbroker and rule the world. Jordan Belfort got a good five years or so of the limelight as a result, learning the tricks from Mark Hanna before discovering penny trades cashing out at fifty percent commission could be applied to the whales big firms were targeting for blue chip stocks. He built brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in a garage, trained an ever-growing crew of sleazy salesmen to read a script guaranteed to hook skeptics, divorced his hometown girl to marry one versed in the drugs/booze/sex lifestyle he adopted for himself, and soon had enough money for the SEC and FBI to both be on his tale.
How could this true-life tale of hedonistic excess and financial fantasy—one already listed as an inspiration for 2000’s Boiler Room—not find its way to Hollywood’s door if only to help Belfort earn an income to help pay off the $110 million court-ordered restitution hanging over his head? Supposedly Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong fame talked him into writing down the details during their stint in jail together, an idea that spawned two novels and an eventual bidding war between two of the film industry’s most bankable stars in Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Leo obviously won out in 2007, got Martin Scorsese to put his hand in the mix, saw Warner Bros. balk and Red Granite Pictures promise an uncensored exposé, and the 179-minute hard-R bacchanal that is The Wolf of Wall Street was born.
A pitch-black comedy scripted by Terence Winter that will have you in stitches, Wolf unabashedly puts its money where its mouth is. Without glorifying Belfort’s (DiCaprio) lifestyle, it makes sure the chaotic volatility of his illegal activities and the resulting drug-induced orgies play out with the correct dosage of head-shaking daftness to have us wondering whether a few years of consequence-free hard-partying would be worth the prison, bankruptcy, and infamy intrinsic to its hubristic fall of Biblical proportions. We know from the many instances of fourth-wall breaking Belfort uses to engage us directly that his father’s (Rob Reiner‘s Max) warning of “chickens coming home to roost” isn’t far on the horizon, so the insanity becomes less a guide for what we should be doing and more a cautionary tale of fleeting pleasure evolving into an abyss of self-destruction.
I’m not sure even Marty could have believed he’d have it in him to capture this audacious document of vile and deplorable men at the ripe old age of seventy, but boy does he do so with the confidence and skill of his legendary glory days. I know The Departed won an Oscar, but has anything post-Casino really possessed the bite of a Goodfellas or Taxi Driver besides Gangs of New York? All of his work with DiCaprio has been great and Hugo was a masterful aside into new technology and subject matter for the auteur, but none of it made you stare agape at the screen when the credits began rolling. The Wolf of Wall Street does so at multiple points, constantly pushing the envelope and fearlessly mirroring its subject’s trajectory to the bitter end.
It’s hard to knowingly say the film embellishes a caricaturized reality to drive home that it’s satirizing these activities rather than condoning them since I haven’t read Belfort’s memoirs, but Scorsese and company have ingeniously upped the ante to ensure we see the sad chauvinism and remorselessness to every action through humor. Whether it’s scathingly vicious dialogue masked in a good-natured tone like a debate on how far is too far when it comes to throwing midgets; quick barbs of amorality thinly dressed in genuine sympathy like Belfort’s divorce from Teresa (Cristin Milioti) described by the line “I felt terrible” followed by “Three days later I moved Naomi (Margot Robbie) into the apartment”; or the physical pratfalls of a Quaalude-high’s “cerebral palsy phase”, you laugh because the only alternative would be to cry.
This is the magic to the roller coaster ride: every time you think enough is enough and Belfort and friends will realize what it is they’re doing to themselves, their families, and the victims they’re fleecing millions and millions of dollars from, they go and do something more wild and stupid than you could have imagined. Belfort and the fictional versions of his criminal cabal (Jonah Hill‘s Donnie Azoff, Jon Bernthal‘s Brad, P.J. Byrne‘s Rugrat, Kenneth Choi‘s Chester, Brian Sacca‘s Pinhead, and Henry Zebrowski‘s Sea Otter) fall further into depravity until the only way to get through the day is a carefully regimented cocktail of uppers and downers canceling each other out so they can dial the next schmuck on the phone and bone the next prostitute/secretary willing to do anything for ten-grand and a smile.
And Scorsese depicts everything through a fine-tuned filter that turns what Belfort sees in his head to the reality everyone else is witnessing in the land of sobriety. He seamlessly turns a conversation of faux pleasantries between DiCaprio and corrupt Swiss banker Saurel (Jean Dujardin) into a mean-spirited aural translation of body language and cadence; changes speech patterns from English to gibberish to bookend Naomi’s question of “What are you saying?” after a Lemmon 714-trip gone wrong; and films a dangerously incapacitated mile-long car ride home as both a feat of impossibly imagined luck and the death-defyingly destructive rampage it was. Couple these scenes of duality with the copious amounts of cocaine, T&A, and profanity populating every frame and you can be darn sure the MPAA just let them squeak by with an R.
Winter’s distillation of Belfort’s rise and fall only drags once FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) circles closer to a conviction with the redundancy of Belfort’s confidence and fight causing too many victory dances to transform into figurative suicides, keeping everything else lean and mean to show the absurdity (Matthew McConaughey‘s Hanna is a hoot), the good intentions (Belfort did in some warped way help his employees write their own rags to riches stories), and the unforgivably unsympathetic brutality a lack of control causes these smarmy charlatans to become even worse monsters than the authorities could ever paint them as through simple money trails. If anyone wants to say The Wolf of Wall Street shows the spoils of the American Dream above ruthless villainy, simply look at Belfort’s painfully despicable goodbye to the life he built on a pink sheet.
Robbie proves light-years ahead of the gorgeous body you assume she’ll be relegated as from the trailers, working the same material stereotype Scarlett Johansson did in Don Jon but with the depth and layers of emotional strength to play for laughs (her enforced celibacy to punish Jordan) and heartbreak (her “last time” with him in bed). Chandler does his thing per usual; Bernthal steals scenes with his large-ego, muscle-clad “rathole”; and Reiner finds himself alternately great and somewhat out of his depth when his “Mad Max” must turn up the accountant’s anger in lieu of the fatherly love. And Jonah Hill—well the kid is earmarked for yet another Supporting Actor Oscar nomination courtesy of Donnie’s unforgettable temper, Quaalude stupors, and clinic of physical comedy with an indecipherable telephone fight against Belfort turning from playful to cutthroat.
But at the end of the day, the true heart, soul, and adrenaline rush behind Wolf‘s monumental shenanigans is a Leonardo DiCaprio with possibly his best shot at award season glory. He plays the mild-mannered newbie fresh out of college, idealistically looking to make himself and his clients rich; lets loose with a growl of passionate vitriol when rallying his troops like a college football coach does his fraternity of loudmouthed buffoons roid-raging for blood; and finds the range to be pitiful and sympathetic when the bottom drops with all the unheeded warning he ever could have asked to receive. It’s his most adult role too despite being a character in his twenties/thirties with a palpable gravitas and unparalleled craft. Skillfully pushing Belfort’s climb and fall to the nth-degree, he shows how no amount of fun could make the resulting shambles worth one copper cent.
 Photo credit: Mary Cybulski. Left to right: Jonah Hill is Donnie Azoff and Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Mary Cybulski. Matthew McConaughey is Mark Hanna in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Mary Cybulski. Left to right: Ted Griffin is Agent Hughes and Kyle Chandler is Agent Patrick Denham in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Mary Cybulski. Left to right: Margot Robbie is Naomi Lapaglia and Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. (c) 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.