The constant theme of Martin Scorsese’s best work are the temptations of the flesh, never more aptly seen than though the prism of real-life subjects. He’s explored this through Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, Henry Hill and Jesus Christ, but in his new film The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort may have the most savage appetite of them all. Here, Scorsese turns his camera to the greed and avarice of the stock market boom of the late 80s that he sees in almost the same way as his great film Goodfellas, with a kid from the middle class who finds a short-route to riches and unapologetically enjoys the anything-goes lifestyle. He wants anything and everything and gets it, no matter what. Then, as Scorsese’s subjects always do, must suffer for it. Jordan races through life as fast as he can, acquiring anything and everything he can get his hands on. Anything? How about his own yacht with a helipad? Of course, you’ll need a helicopter to go along with it.
Like Goodfellas, which followed the personal real-life story of an outsider into the world of New York gangsters, The Wolf of Wall Street follows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, who narrates his own story with the energy of a runaway bullet train. At 22, he is a nice kid from the middle class who gets a job with a legendary Wall Street firm L.J. Rothchild under the tutelage of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) a wiry drug-addict who not only trains the kid, but lets him in on the secrets of quick success. “The name of the game,” he tells Jordan,” is moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.” This is a mantra that Jordan takes to heart, even if the client doesn’t make a dime.
Then, only weeks after getting the job, Rothchild hits a brick wall on October 19th, 1987 – Black Monday – forcing the grand old lady to close its doors after 90 years. Without a job, he starts from the bottom at the only firm that will hire him – a meager penny-stock firm that works out of an auto parts garage. Jordan makes himself a superstar by proving how easy it is to scam the client to make money fast. He takes over the business, building it from penny stocks to Blue Chips to IPOs born on the backs of screwing their clients. To his surprise, he finds a small patch of money hungry brokers ready to follow his lead. Most visible is a pudgy Jewish kid named Donnie (Jonah Hill) who becomes his right arm. Donnie is a glutinous yin to Jordan’s yang, an otherwise nice Jewish kid who tries to throw off that moniker by dressing as WASP-like as he can.
In no time Jordan has turned the tiny boiler room brokerage firm into Stratton Oakmont, an operation built on crooked investments from which flows money, money, money leading to mountains of drugs, rooms full of naked women, and every expensive toy under the sun. He feels guilty about nothing, taking Gordon Gekko’s mantra of “Greed is Good” and making it into a religious sacrament. Jordan is a modern-day Caligula, a Roman Emperor who makes no apologies for his gross avarice, his drug addiction, his sex addiction or any other morally reprehensible machination that allowed him to get it. In no time at all he has be biggest house, the biggest boat, the best sports car, the fastest plane, and mounds and mounds of drugs. He even trades in his supportive wife (“How I Met Your Mother”’s Cristin Milioti) for a gorgeous blonde trophy wife (Naomi Robbie).
In our minds, possibly not to Jordan, there is always the dread that the party will come to an end. We feel that, but Jordan constantly skirts disaster, especially late in the film when he desperately needs to get to Switzerland and takes his own boat instead of a plane. The plane explodes in mid-air and Jordan comes to believe that he may be invincible. We feel that too, even when a boy scout FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) start snooping around Jordan’s books. The scene at sea, incidentally, is a not-so-thinly veiled call-back to DiCaprio’s role in Titanic when his boat is caught in a violent storm and it looks like The King of the World won’t make it out of this one either.
The rhythm of the film is familiar to anyone who has seen Scorsese’s films before, what is amazing is that it’s always infectious. We know that what Jordan and Donnie are doing is morally reprehensible, but there is something in the attractiveness of their behavior that makes us privately hope that they won’t get caught. In our own way we like these guys, and that may come from our familiarity with their other films. DiCaprio, in particular, turns in his very best performance, throwing away his good-guy image as a man who lives by appetite alone. There are notes here that DiCaprio has never been able to display. Yes, he’s good looking, but he isn’t afraid to look like a jerk. Here he is able to display his talent for slapstick in a scene in which Jordan ingests a 15 year-old Quaalude that sends his body into a fit very close to cerebral palsy. That’s no good when he desperately needs to get to his car to stop Donnie from making a fatal mistake. What is surprising is that this scene is played for laughs and it works!
This is a movie made up of two or three dozen perfect moments like that. Overall it’s energy is charged by the pacing and by DiCaprio’s in-your-face narration. This is a raunchy, messy, but ultimately exciting film about one guy who desires everything and gets it. If it seems a bit too long, that’s only because it is playing to the theme of wretched excess. The end of the film sends Jordan on a toboggan slide that seems somewhat inevitable, causing his reign as king of the world to end with a whimper instead of a bang. Does he learn a lesson from all his sins of lust and greed? What do you think?