With Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner. Written by Terence Winter. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence. 180 minutes.
At the end of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film “Goodfellas,” Henry Hill––who had lived like a prince as a member of the Mob––enters Hell. Actually it’s the Witness Protection Program, but having to live like the rest of us is hell to him. If you can understand why, you’ll see that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET does for stockbrokers what “GoodFellas” did for mobsters.
Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), we follow a nobody who gets a taste of what life is like for what Tom Wolfe called “the Masters of the Universe,” only to have the rug pulled out from under him by the 1987 stock market crash. He works his way back, first selling valueless “penny stocks” and eventually heading up his own major Wall Street brokerage. He gathers acolytes along the way who learn the same philosophy he was taught by another broker (Matthew McConaughey who deserves an Oscar nomination for the one major scene he’s in). It’s all about convincing the suckers to invest. Brokers make money on every transaction so the important thing is to keep churning the accounts. They tell themselves they know better what to do with the money they’re ripping off the investors than their hapless clients ever will.
Well, what happens when you’re young and have more money than you ever dreamed of having? Yes, you could start a charitable foundation and work to improve the world. Or you could do what Belfort did and engage in an unending and self-congratulatory orgy of sex and drugs. After all, if you’ve made the money, you obviously deserve it, and that’s what Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter give us: nearly three hours of debauchery… before the bill comes due. As the old saying goes, whom the gods would drive mad they first grant their every wish.
This is DiCaprio’s fifth film with Scorsese, and one senses that director and star are finally totally in sync. DiCaprio’s Belfort has the energy and devotion to his goals that you wish his Jay Gatsby had. (Indeed, when you see Belfort’s Long Island estate it’s impossible not to think of Gatsby.) As an actor, he takes risks that pay off, as in a darkly comic sequence where he and close associate Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) go on a bender with Quaaludes and don’t realize how long it will take until the drugs kick in. Here is an actor and director with complete trust in each other, allowing a scene to be played broadly yet never losing a sense of reality.
Mention must also be made of Hill, who has bounced around in various comic and serious roles, but gets his first opportunity since “Moneyball”––for which he received an Oscar nomination––to show his A-game. He’s funny, arrogant and completely self-deluded, playing Sancho Panza to DiCaprio’s Don Quixote. The difference is that their delusions are not about rescuing virtue, but engaging in unending greed.
The film has been criticized in some quarters for its explicit sex and its reduction of most of its women to objects. While viewers may be focused on how stunning Margot Robbie is, they may miss just how good this Australian actress is at playing an American character who’s been around the block. Those charging the film with sexism will be missing the point. The film isn’t endorsing Belfort’s activities, it’s chronicling them, just as “Goodfellas” wasn’t intended as a recruitment film for the Mafia.
One gets to the end of “The Wolf Of Wall Street” feeling breathless, having watched Belfort’s rise and fall. It’s not enough to say he got what was coming to him. There’s a larger question here about just how Wall Street operates and whether it is significantly different from Las Vegas, only with better lighting. We see why people would be sucked into this way of life. How we respond is up to us.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.