The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is one of the most energetic movies I’ve seen in years…and it’s about people who work in office buildings. Of course, that’s where the characters make their money, but the real story is about how they choose to spend it. The memoir of stock broker Jordan Belfort provides the blueprint for a tale of Dionysian proportions and we are all invited to be voyeurs, peeping in on the excess of 1980’s and 1990’s New York.
Director Martin Scorsese is no stranger to stories of crime and an addiction to power. His characters frequently chase after the American Dream by climbing the perilous ladder of the criminal underworld. In The Wolf of Wall Street the men are not carrying guns. They are not dumping bodies in garbage trucks or cornfields either. Now they are holding telephones, wearing white collars and are ready to put a hit on your bank account. The office has become the war zone. The victims will be the American consumer as well as the economic structure of the United States.
The battle begins in the late 1980’s, when an eager young stock broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is forced to seek employment at a hole-in-the-wall “penny stock” company in a strip mall plaza. He catches the attention of a furniture salesman named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) who falls under Belfort’s spell and the two create Stratton Oakmont. This brokerage house quickly becomes a major player thanks to various illegal deals.
From then on, everyone is sucked into Jordan Belfort’s tornado of excess. Legal lines disappear. Moral lines disappear. And white lines dissappear…up countless nostrils. But cocaine, Quaaludes and any kind of sexual scenario you can think of,all pale in comparison to the high Jordan Belfort gets from being worshiped like a brainwashing cult leader.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives his most outrageous and daring performance to date in the The Wolf of Wall Street. He has worked with Martin Scorsese before on Oscar-winning films like The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006) so he was already comfortable with his director. Despite successful collaborations in the past, Wolf was a huge roll of the dice because of its morally questionable protagonist. Jordan Belfort is a lying, chauvinistic, drug-addicted criminal but DiCaprio possess such on-screen charisma that we are mesmerized by the character’s mantra of deception. The role even won him a Golden Globe Award.
The performances from everyone in The Wolf of Wall Street are remarkable. Margot Robbie is an Australian newcomer who really holds her own next to a star like Leonardo DiCaprio. Her fake Brooklyn accent and tough demeanor mesh perfectly with the world Martin Scorsese creates within the frame. Jonah Hill is also very good as Donnie Azoff. But the real surprise is Rob Reiner playing Jordan’s dad, Max Belfort. Most will know Reiner from the 1970’s American sitcom, All in the Family. Here his delivery of certain lines had me almost falling out of my chair.
And I did laugh a lot during The Wolf of Wall Street. But it’s not a funny movie the way a traditional comedy is funny. Wolf is ultimately a satire. How could it not be when Jordan Belfort is doing cocaine off a woman while muttering lines from the children’s story “The Little Engine that Could”? Or when someone taking a hit of coke is juxtaposed with Popeye eating spinach as a cartoon plays in the background? It’s a swipe at how morally bankrupt people can only get their strength from a temporal world and its fleeting pleasures. The men in the film are not strong and dependable, they are instead weak and childish.
Intelligent filmgoers and fans of Martin Scorsese will understand the satirical edge this film possesses, the commentary behind the entertainment, the real point: self-confidence has turned into inflated ego for the American businessman with no scruples. Other audience members will be uncomfortable. A more conservative crowd may complain about The Wolf of Wall Street’s extreme nudity, drug use, or even its just-shy-of-three-hour running time. But how else can you make a movie about excess without the film itself being excessive in every way?
We must understand that Martin Scorsese, a brilliant satirist with an almost 50-year career, is toying with us. Belfort and his inner circle are not being praised for reprehensible behavior. Just like in Goodfellas (1990), the criminal pursuit of the American dream is glamorized. The ride is shiny. It looks exciting and fun…and then people begin to get hurt. Ultimately all people come down from their high. This is when everyone has to take a long hard look in the mirror, something Jordan Belfort couldn’t even do sober.