The ugly reality of what constitutes the modern day American Dream is writ large over Martin Scorsese’s outrageous and intelligent trawl through the moral sewer of a world fuelled by power, prostitutes and pesos.
The Wolf Of Wall Street begins with an advert for Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) church of capitalism, Stratton Oakmont, espousing the firm’s “stability” and “integrity”, before cutting to its “trained professionals” betting huge sums of money on a dwarf throwing contest.
It’s none-too-subtle – like much of the film – but this observation of the unbridled hypocrisy and moral vacuum at the black heart of Belfort and his army of disciples runs through the core of Scorsese’s exhilarating and exhausting 22nd feature.
Scorsese revisits the dwarf tossing scene later in the film when Belfort, his best friend and Vice President Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and a couple of other senior traders discuss how best to exploit the dwarf and agree not to “consider him a human”. It’s a cleverly symbolic moment – we are the ‘little people’ being taken advantage of by these monsters for financial gain and their own amusement.
These guys know they’re crooks but are having too much fun in their grotesque bubble to care. When a potential client remarks over the phone that Belfort seems like “a pretty sincere guy”, his team collapse into howls of laughter; while Belfort literally and figuratively ‘closes the deal’ by simulating having sex as he makes the sale.
Told through Belfort’s unreliable eyes, we follow him from his wet-behind-the-ears early days through to his rebirth following the Wall Street crash of 1987 to become a wildly successful stockbroker making money hand over fist by selling worthless stocks to unwitting schumcks who have bought into the get rich quick mantra peddled to them by the ‘free’ market.
Belfort’s success leads to the creation of Stratton Oakmont, a boiler room where illegal activity and corruption go hand in hand with opprobrious excess and decadence on a scale that would make Caligula blush.
It’s easy to get blindsided by the film’s numerous scenes of drug taking, orgiastic partying and general debauchery, but those who claim the director gives Belfort a pass are completely missing the point of The Wolf Of Wall Street. It is politicians, the legal system and society in general who let – and continue to let – snake oil salesmen like Belfort off the hook by allowing ourselves to be seduced by empty promises of riches beyond the dreams of avarice.
A key scene takes place towards the start of the film involving Matthew McConaughey’s obscenely immoral broker Mark Hanna taking a young Belfort out to lunch to explain to him – and us – that the name of the game is to “move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket” and to “keep the clients on the ferris wheel and keep the park open 24/7/365”.
As appalling as Hanna’s pep talk is, we laugh in spite of ourselves, thanks in no small part to McConaughey’s inspired cameo. A similar reaction is had throughout what is at times a laugh-out-loud comedy. Belfort lives and breathes the words Hanna has taught him, which makes for numerous scenes of ridiculous comedy, most notably when he’s almost paralysed by an particularly strong batch of Quaaludes.
Based on Belfort’s book of the same name, the film follows in the ‘visual novel’ footsteps of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino by relying heavily on narration to tell the tale. Just as Ray Liotta’s delivery sucked us in to a tale of New York gangsters, so too does DiCaprio, who builds an irresistible rapport with the audience through a mix of buddy-buddy repartee and matter-of-fact exposition.
It’s an electric performance from DiCaprio, arguably the highlight of his career and certainly his best under Scorsese’s mentorship. The over-the-top banter with his besotted staff and explosive physicality may be what grabs the headlines, but his more nuanced work, particularly opposite trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) are what sets the performance apart. DiCaprio is lent excellent support from all quarters, especially Robbie and a never-better Hill.
As you’d expect from a Scorsese picture, the needle-drop soundtrack is a music lover’s delight (although Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter is notable by its absence), while Terrence Winter’s volcanic script justifies the film’s three-hour running time.
Far from slowing down in his autumn years, Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street finds the director back at his very best.