The Wolf of Wall Street is ruffling feathers with its no-holds-barred depiction of stock-broker douchebags behaving very badly in 90s Long Island.
Martin Scorsese’s picture is an overlong smorgasbord of drug-taking, hookers and frat-boy misadventure, inspired by real crimes against working Americans.
It’s a comedy that asks you to bring your own moral judgement to the party, by leaving those views off the screen.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a real life figure who was convicted of stock-market fraud in 1998, after his company, Stratton Oakmont defrauded investors on a massive scale, running the type of testosterone driven outfit that inspired the movie Boiler Room (2000). Belfort’s merry band of poorly-educated brokers work the phones to aggressively sell penny shares (sometimes extracting a few thousand dollars from duped victims) for companies that are going nowhere fast.
Early on, in a brief cameo, Matthew McConaughey’s elder broker explains his concept of how Wall Street works: “The name of the game is moving money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.” But we always try and make the client money, no? Jordan retorts. “No,” replies McConaughey who goes on to give an entertaining non-verbal speech about the “woozy, wazy” nature of the business and we get the idea.
As Stratton expands, with millions of dollars raised but not returned, their office parties start to resemble fraternity house orgies, with streams of strippers, champagne, dwarf tossing and random couplings. The mayhem is orchestrated with the flair you expect from Scorsese.
These white-collar criminals never kill anyone, yet they seem grubbier and far less appealing than any of Scorsese’s Goodfellas; these guys are just schmucks on the take. Perfectly illustrated by Jonah Hill’s character Donnie Azoff, who convinces as Belfort’s slow-witted number two. Yes, this is Jonah Hill masturbating in a party scene. Yet it’s not a Judd Apatow comedy and he has been Oscar nominated for it. To be fair, Hill is pitch perfect (and hilarious) as the sort of dimwit who could make their name in a boiler room. The dialogue sprinkles zingers and quotable lines throughout. The mansions look great, the helicopters, the yachts… Rob Reiner even turns up as Jordan’s Dad, in a foul-mouthed angry turn that will delight long-standing Reiner fans.
Holding it all together is DiCaprio, who has the unenviable task of breathing life into a really unpleasant character. He does the gusto, and the pseud-religious speechifying of Belfort extremely well. We never see any redeeming sides to him though; nothing to suggest how Belfort could come to be a reformed character, as he supposedly is since incarceration.
In the end, Wolf of Wall Street is a lavish, expensive comedy, that doesn’t justify the near three-hour run time. Brutally effective and well played, it shines a light on behaviour we already understood.