“It was obscene – in the normal world… who the f*** would want to live there?”
At one point Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) says these words in his narration – it’s a Scorsese “gangster” movie (with stocks instead of guns, but we’ll get to that in a bit) – after being told by his father “Mad” Max (Rob Reiner) that what his son was doing with his business was just that. This is one of those moments that makes the distinction more than clear: Jordan has to put what he is doing with his company, Stratton Oakmont, in unloading crap “penny stocks” into this category of it not being the normal world. It’s part of the mind-set of this character, which is to acknowledge that this whole mega-rich money-crazed LET’S-GET-NUTS lifestyle, which spreads natural as can be for his pupils he has trained, was not “normal”, but to indulge in it all the same.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a monumental look, at three hours (which every critic and their mother has pointed out as if it’s their duty to point out the length, also more on that in a moment), of a master sociopath, and a sorta-man-child, a high-functioning version of one of those dunces that Will Ferrell plays in his movies. After striking out at actually being a real stockbroker on Wall street – he went in and got his license just as the market crashed in 1987 – he took a job selling these penny stocks (mostly worthless junk that was sold to low-level working class people, advertised in Hustler), and making 50% commission buy using a level of BS-speak that is meant to dig in to easily-persuaded folks.
But making two grand in one sitting wasn’t enough. When you’re addicted to money, and this is one of the keys to Belfort’s personality (a flaw but part of his modus-operandi), nothing is ever really enough. So he went out on his own, after being approached by a geek neighbor with big fake white teeth (Jonah Hill, a performance worthy of Joe Pesci, but younger and a bit goofier), and made his own small-time racket with small-town crooks (one of them a near unrecognizable Jon Bernthal from The Walking Dead, complete with gaudy goatee and muscles). And from here, things just began to grow and grow.
Scorsese’s latest film is a gangster saga because it’s about folks doing criminal things with the attitude of ‘Hey, we *liked* doing it’, and with the aid of a narrator, like Henry Hill in GoodFellas, is not only unapologetic, but with the sense that if he wasn’t caught he would still be doing it, at least in theory. The frightening thing, but also something the director and his writer Terence Winter (of Boardwalk Empire fame) use for their satirical aims, is that they used this environment where everything was technically, kinda sorta, ‘legal’, and just went nuts with it. Why not have a competition involving dwarves being literally thrown at a dart-board? Why not have madcap orgies on the way *to* the insane bachelor party in Vegas? When excess is the name of the game, don’t stop at the roof, tear it off to crash through the sky into the solar system. On Quaaludes.
The filmmakers don’t shy away from making this character, what I would dub a sort of ‘anti-villain’, in the sense that he is, really, the villain of his own story but someone we almost wish could be different and change but won’t, and how far he plunged into his terror, and the scary obliviousness to real pain and suffering. When Belfort is caught by his first wife cheating on his future 2nd (the wildly sexy but insanely talented Aussie actress Margot Robbie), there is a split-second where he looks ashamed… until he informs us he divorced three days later and quickly brought his new flame to move in with him. When he discusses certain former employees he mentions how one or two of them did this or that, then later died or killed themselves, “but anyway”, he’ll quickly follow it up with. He gets most incensed, now that I think of it, about getting busted due to, in a roundabout way, the owner of Benihana restaurants (!)
DiCaprio gives it his all as this guy, as he has to. There’s no other way than to make this man like a devil, first in training under the tutelage of the Master of the Universe Matthew McConaughey plays (five of the funniest moments put on film in the past twenty years), then as a born leader if only because everyone else around him is either dumber or just easily impressionable. He’s charming, in a way, but what’s great is that he never makes Belfort too sympathetic while at the same time still making him painfully human, a complete f***-up at other times (the other funniest moments put on film in so many years is him and his partner-in-crime Donny played by Jonah Hill on a motherload of Quaaludes and stumbling around in manic-comic precision).
This is the thing that I think makes the film both so electrifying, but something that is by its very nature divisive. It’s not a big crowd-pleaser like GoodFellas – it does go too far, it is, possibly, too long (but where exactly to cut is a much harder question, at least for me, since it moves faster than most 90 minute movies) – and its protagonist is the antagonist. It’s Patrick Bateman, one of the Jerky Boys (watch as he and his first team call up a seller, it’s a full-blown childish prank call), and a Roman general all rolled up into one package. And it’s DiCaprio’s best work.
But so it is for Hill, too, who we’ve never seen be this hysterical – sometimes from the script, sometimes from his own improv – and making this supporting character just as memorable and vital to this story. Neither of these men really “has it together”, but Donny is the more obvious screw-up type, married (no kidding) to his first cousin, and does eat a goldfish when the time comes. And Robie, who I don’t remember seeing before, is a major find as Belfort’s “Duchess of Bayside Queens”, able to go head-to-head with the star and sometimes (as when she throws glass after glass of water at his face) tops him. There’s also a wonderful bevy of walk-ons, if not simply small roles, by the likes of Spike Jonze as the penny-stock guy early on, and Jean Dujardin as a slimy Swiss banker.
Ultimately, Wolf of Wall Street asks a lot for its audience, with this character and it’s world, because it is that mirror facing back to the financial upper-echelon, or just those that are going so mad to get there. At the same time I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much during one of Scorsese’s films, ranging from wild physical comedy, pratfalls, and taking on Winter’s dialog and building upon it with the actors into scenes that have a real madness but scary clarity of their superiority over those that (gasp) don’t care about money every second of the day. The sickness of the world hits those who really don’t think anything else is wrong, and the final shot of the film, showing a group of people watching and listening attentively to a Belfort “sales” lecture (“Sell me this pen,” is his shtick), and none ever question that they are learning from an ex-convict indicted on multiple acts of fraud.
Wolf of Wall Street is the darkest, most excessive comedy there can be, depicting the obscenity of the con being what stems off all the sex, drugs and wildness thereafter – you laugh at this man and his ilk, for three hours, and then realize only as you leave the theater even if Belfort never commits a crime like this again, his mentality and other Belforts live and profit on and on and on and on.