The word “epic” has long been devalued but every now and then you come across a film that simply fits the bill and the latest from legendary director Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street, is exactly that: epic. This is a satirical look at the fast times of the real-life “Wolf”, Jordan Belfort, in a three hour orgy of sex, drugs, and greed during the 80s and 90s. Here, he is played by the ever-game Leonardo DiCaprio in his most debauched role to date. Belfort, at least in this film’s take, started with a goal–getting rich– but never learned the word “enough.” In his mind, nothing truly satisfied. That includes jumping ship from his mildly attractive wife to the model of his dreams, nor the hundreds of thousands of dollars he schemed away from hard working but gullible Americans and eventually turned into millions. Satire can sometimes come off differently to people, which is why I’m vexed and mystified by how outlandish Scorsese went in this film and people still mistake it for praise, glorification, or anything else. While this is a comedy at its heart–with belly laughs aplenty–the grim and cruel nature of Belfort and his cronies is always bubbling under the surface and sometimes simmers over.
But Belfort didn’t start at the top. He began from the bottom, where he learns important lessons from a star-speckled cast. Matthew McConaughey, in five minutes of screen time, makes one of the longest lasting impressions on the audience and Belfort. Jack off more, get your mojo going, don’t worry about earning money for your clients, and do lots and lots of cocaine. From this point on, Belfort runs with that idea and eventually employs Jonah Hill and a few other cohorts to strike it out on their own.
Belfort is a smooth-talking pretty boy with an unbelievable tolerance for drugs. How he even walks straight is a miracle, and eventually, in one of the funniest sequences of physical comedy committed to screen, he overestimates the potency of some Quaaludes and ends up in the “cerebral palsy” phase. Achingly, DiCaprio has to navigate his way back home in this state and in his way are a flight of brick stairs that has you witness one of the biggest actors of the current generation rolling and pushing his body in excruciating and hilarious ways.
The sheer amount of chaos, nudity, vulgarity, and drugs in Wolf is often baffling. The F word, for instance, is uttered 506 times and demolished the previous record in a narrative feature. The world of Belfort was surrounded in excess. Gorgeous women, incredibly lavish yachts, spontaneous trips abroad, office parties the likes of which I’ve never been nor ever will be invited to, drugs done out in the open at restaurants, and more. Even the Feds get involved, of which Belfort clearly doesn’t give an F. But Scorsese has a few other tricks up his sleeve as well. You see, the very Belfort that we follow also narrates the film and, during certain freeze frames, will actually break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. With DiCaprio’s sly smile, charm, and charisma at full blast, it’s hard to fault anyone for falling to his wills. Along the way we are given a lesson in what a stock broker can do if given the freedom to. Sadly, cold calls keeps word of mouth low and selling someone on penny stocks earns even bigger returns than playing with the big boys.
The real miracle, though, is that Scorsese nails the tone and manages to propel the film ever forward despite the three hour run time. Terence Winter, the creator of the Scorsese executive produced-Boardwalk Empire, broke out in a big way as a writer for The Sopranos. Here, he has managed to give Scorsese a gem that navigates dark tragedy with dark humor that can play as funny as any ridiculous comedy you could come up with. Not once does the film seem to relent. It surges with new wrinkles and jokes that come full circle 40 minutes later. There are moments of darkness to this story, and Wolf never shies from them. They even manage to pull in names from companies and people you recognize. At times it’s hard to catch your breath with the pacing, but by the time the film closes in a brilliant flourish, you’ll be asking yourself why you want even more. Perhaps, more than anything, Scorsese has shown just how addictive a lifestyle like Belfort’s can be, and why so many can barrel down the path of absolute destruction without blinking an eye.