Film Review: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Old-school Scorsese style and an unhinged Leonardo DiCaprio juice a cynical tale of Wall Street bad boys behaving badly.

wolf of wall street

Even Gordon Gekko looks like a veritable lap dog compared to Jordan Belfort, the self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” whose coked-up, pill-popping, high-rolling shenanigans made him a multi-millionaire at age 26, a convicted felon a decade later, and a bestselling author and motivational speaker a decade after that. Now, Belfort’s riches-to-slightly-less-riches tale has been brought to the screen by no less a connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths than Martin Scorsese, and the result is a big, unruly bacchanal of a movie that huffs and puffs and nearly blows its own house down, but holds together by sheer virtue of its furious filmmaking energy and a Leonardo DiCaprio star turn so electric it could wake the dead.

Arriving six weeks past its original November release date and still showing signs of editing-room haste, “Wolf” should ride a high want-to-see factor and generally admiring reviews to solid holiday B.O., though its length and extreme content may keep the reportedly $100 million production from reaching the rarefied aerie of “The Departed” ($289 million worldwide) and “Shutter Island” ($294 million worldwide).

After going unexpectedly kid-friendly for 2011’s “Hugo” (his first PG movie in two decades), Scorsese could hardly have followed with a more dramatic about-face than “Wolf,” which skirts the very outer limits of the R rating with its nonstop barrage of drug-fueled decadence, all put across with a sinister smile. In the first reel alone, which aptly sets the tone for what’s to come, Belfort (DiCaprio) can be seen snorting coke off a prostitute’s backside, getting fellated while driving his white Ferrari, and nearly crashing his private helicopter while high on a homemade cocktail of Quaaludes, Xanax and morphine (the last one “because it’s awesome”). If some of the advance hype suggested that “Wolf” was going to be a kind of “Goodfellas” on Wall Street, in reality it’s more like the jittery, paranoid third act of that movie stretched out to three hours, starting at a fever pitch and heading toward the nuclear.

In the prologue to “Wolf,” the first of two volumes of memoirs, Belfort wrote that he hoped his story would serve as “a cautionary tale to the rich and poor alike,” though there was little in the 500 pages that followed (or in the cover line, “I partied like a rock star, lived like a king”) that suggested contrition. Nor have Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter brought any retroactive moralizing to bear on the material. Rather, they take Belfort on his own questionable terms, seeking to reproduce the atmosphere of crazed, alpha-male intensity that engulfed the trading floor at Stratton Oakmont, the Belfort-founded brokerage house which, in “Wolf,” comes to resemble a Boschian Rome before the fall. It is the sort of office where a bathroom placard kindly reminds everyone not to engage in intercourse on the premises during office hours — right where the “Employees Must Wash Hands” sign usually goes.

The movie begins in medias res, with Belfort and his devoted minions blowing off steam in an office dwarf-tossing competition, before flashing back to give us a brief glimpse of the young and relatively innocent Jordan, who arrives on Wall Street in the fall of 1987 as a “connector” — basically a glorified phone dialer — for the old-money trading firm of L.F. Rothschild. It’s there that the eager rookie gets his first sense of the wild life to come when a mad-hatter senior broker (Matthew McConaughey) takes him out for a three-martini lunch that also includes enough white powder for a killer day at Big Bear. And even though he’s no longer quite boyish enough to play someone in his early 20s, DiCaprio is convincingly green here, like a wide-eyed Candide lunching with McConaughey’s debauched Dr. Pangloss.

But no sooner has Jordan settled in than Black Monday arrives and the bottom falls out, of the market and L.F. Rothschild, sending him back to the help-wanted ads at a time when nobody seems to be looking for stockbrokers. Nobody, that is, save for a storefront brokerage in a Long Island strip mall, where the slovenly staff unloads worthless penny stocks on cold-called clients for 50% commissions, and where Belfort sticks out like a Savile Row suit on a Kmart clearance rack. But the genial proprietor (an uncredited Spike Jonze) agrees to give him a shot, not quite realizing he’s just let a wolf in the door.

It isn’t long before Belfort branches out on his own, starting the tony-sounding Stratton Oakmont in a declasse former gas station, resolving to go from “selling garbage to garbagemen” to targeting the deep-pocketed one percent. He assembles a merry band of brokers comprised of petty thugs, drug dealers and high-school dropouts who, when trained in Belfort’s precision-scripted tactics, prove to be remarkably effective salesmen. Riding herd on them all is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a buffoonish caricature of a Jew in WASP Land, decked out in garish bleached teeth, clear-lens horn-rims and a sweater tied ever so carefully around his neck. (Belfort’s own Jewishness and WASP aspirations, a running theme in the book, have been omitted from the film.) After offering his services to Belfort out of the blue in a local diner, Donnie becomes the Wolf’s most trusted associate, and it’s Hill who gives the movie’s most flamboyant (if slightly one-note) comic performance, unzipping his schlong, swallowing a live goldfish, and otherwise boldly exploring the gray area between mankind and our nearest relatives on the evolutionary scale.

Clocking in at 179 minutes, “Wolf” sets a record as Scorsese’s longest fiction film (one minute longer than “Casino”), but that doesn’t make it his most ambitious or deeply felt. It lacks the dynamic emotional range of a “Mean Streets” or “Goodfellas,” or the intricate plotting of a “Casino,” and for all its amusing guest stars (Rob Reiner as Belfort’s combustible dad, Jean Dujardin as a pompous Swiss banker) and caper-like episodes, almost everything unfolds in the same manic register. Even when the movie is really cooking (which is often), there’s a feeling that scenes are being held for a few beats too many, that Scorsese and his ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker simply didn’t have enough time to do the elegant fine-tuning they’re accustomed to (an impression reinforced by several conspicuous continuity gaffes and badly matched cuts throughout the film).

Still, considering how familiar this milieu of fast-talking, hard-selling hucksters is from the likes of “Wall Street,” “American Psycho,” “Boiler Room” (which was also inspired by the Belfort case) and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” it’s surprising how lively Scorsese manages to keep things throughout. In terms of style, the movie is almost self-consciously Scorsesean — even more than “The Departed” — with d.p. Rodrigo Prieto’s camera tracking elaborately, freeze-framing, dollying in fast and whip-panning even faster, while a quadruple album’s worth of classic rock and blues fill up the soundtrack (veteran Scorsese collaborator Robbie Robertson more than earns his “executive music producer” credit) alongside DiCaprio’s running first-person narration. This is very much iconic, old-school Scorsese in full bloom, but what’s missing is the marvelous empathy the filmmaker managed to conjure for even those films’ most reprehensible characters — the sense that this former seminarian could see the good and ill in the souls of troubled men, even finding some kind of tormented nobility in the psychopath Travis Bickle.

In “Wolf,” that empathy has been replaced by an overarching cynicism — cynicism for the swindlers who do the swindling and the schmucks who get snookered, cynicism for the empty allure of the good life, and cynicism for a system that allows for so many clean getaways. (Belfort’s nominal downfall notwithstanding, those wishing to see the character get his real comeuppance will still be waiting after the end credits have rolled and the lights have come back up.) Make no mistake: “Wolf” is as much a gangster movie as any Scorsese has made, with Belfort as a Bill the Butcher who slices and dices people’s bank accounts, a Nicky Santoro who puts your savings in a vise. But on some basic level, he’s a cipher whose drug-fueled binges regularly put others (including, in one harrowing scene, his own young daughter) in harm’s way, and who thinks nothing of recruiting his wife’s British aunt (an excellent Joanna Lumley) as a front — or, in the movie’s distinctive patois, “rathole” — for his offshore accounts. As dramatis personae go, Belfort lacks a tragic dimension: This latter-day Gatsby stares out from his own extravagant Long Island enclave and sees only a blinking green dollar sign.

But a talented performer can do much to camouflage such shortcomings, and that’s precisely what DiCaprio does here. A reliably good actor who too often shows you all the hard, technical work he’s put into creating a character, the DiCaprio of “Wolf” seems loose and uninhibited and freed of premeditated mannerisms. In his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, he’s a constant joy to watch, whether crawling across the floor like a baby while his bombshell second wife (appealing Australian newcomer Margot Robbie, who deserves more screen time) engages in a particularly cruel form of cock-blocking, or rallying his disciples with an impassioned variation on Gekko’s “Greed Is Good” speech. DiCaprio doesn’t just play this part; he inhales it, along with everything else that goes up Belfort’s nose and into his bloodstream.

For anything resembling gravitas, though, one must instead look to the dogged FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who sets Belfort in his sights early on and gradually closes in. In one of the movie’s best scenes, a cocksure Jordan goes so far as to invite the G-man on to his yacht and comes within a hairsbreadth of bribing him. And Chandler, who projects the effortless, middle-class virtue of a 1950s leading man (a Robert Stack type), plays the scene with a wonderfully sly poker face, leading Belfort the egomaniac to believe he’s actually buying what he’s selling. But the sting of “Wolf” comes in Denham’s realization that, while he may have gotten his man, it’s Belfort who may well have the last laugh.

Moments like those keep “Wolf” buoyant and lithe in spite of its redundancies and excesses. But if there’s one scene here that is sure to end up in future Scorsese career-achievement montages, it’s the epic drugged-out setpiece in which Jordan and Donnie experience a delayed reaction to decades-old Quaaludes, obliterating their motor skills and culminating in an explosively funny battle for control of a kitchen telephone. This live-action variation on the old Looney Tunes cartoon in which Bugs Bunny and the mad scientist get high on ether fumes reveals heretofore unknown reserves of physical comedy in DiCaprio. But more than being just a great gag, it’s a representative image: Call it infantile capitalism.

Despite its high price tag, the pic’s physical production is more modestly scaled than the likes of “The Aviator,” “Gangs of New York” and “Hugo,” save for one elaborate, CG-intensive sequence in which Belfort’s yacht nearly capsizes in a violent Mediterranean storm. Otherwise, most of the movie is confined to trading floors, boardrooms and suburban McMansions, rendered by Prieto and production designer Bob Shaw (“Boardwalk Empire,” “The Sopranos”) with the bright, Windexed sheen of strip-mall, office-park America. The redoubtable costume designer Sandy Powell has everyone looking suitably snazzy, in keeping with Stratton Oakmont’s policy of inhouse custom tailoring for its employees.

Film Review: ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Reviewed at Paramount screening room, New York, Dec. 6, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 179 MIN.

  • Production: A Paramount release presented with Red Granite Pictures of an Appian Way/Sikelia/Emjag production. Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Koskoff. Co-producers, Adam Somner, Richard Baratta, Ted Griffin. Executive producers, Georgia Kacandes, Alexandra Milchan, Rick Yorn, Irwin Winkler, Danny Dimbort, Joel Gotler.
  • Crew: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay, Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen, 35mm/Arri Alexa HD), Rodrigo Prieto; editor, Thelma Schoonmaker; executive music producer, Robbie Robertson; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, Bob Shaw; art director, Chris Shriver; set decorator, Ellen Christiansen; costume designer, Sandy Powell; sound (Dolby Digital), James Sabat; supervising sound editors, Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty; re-recording mixer, Tom Fleischman; visual effects supervisor, Robert Legato; visual effects producer, Mark Russell; visual effects, Scanline VFX, Method Studios, Brainstorm Digital, Crazy Horse East, Lola VFX, special effects supervisor, Drew Jiritano; stunt coordinators, Blaise Corrigan, George Aguilar; associate producer, Marianne Bower; assistant director, Adam Somner; second unit director/camera, Robert Legato; casting, Ellen Lewis.
  • With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee.