Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated, cynical Leonardo DiCaprio starrer about a real-life off-the-rails Wall Streeter delivers big-time in spite of long running time.

Unlike its mostly slimy characters, The Wolf of Wall Street favorably impresses on every level. Perversely enjoyable and entertaining, this wild ride of a film offers a motor-mouth chorus of really bad boys whose rousing cantata celebrates the recent era of easy money and financial funny business. Audiences—their values be damned—will sing along.

The subject of financial-industry offenders is familiar, but Terence Winter’s (“Boardwalk Empire”) pummeling adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s shocking, page-turning confessional autobiography spins greed and excess to new cinematic heights and ethical depths. Leonardo DiCaprio’s star turn, his fifth under Scorsese, as real-life Wall Street mover, shaker, swindler and degenerate Belfort might be his best to date. Like a hot IPO for moviegoers, the film should turn ever-accelerating interest and word of mouth into big bucks, with film analysts (aka critics) giving this offering a “buy.”

DiCaprio’s Belfort begins his journey in the ’80s when he lands a “boiler room” job in Queens selling worthless penny stocks to unsuspecting customers. Although clearly gifted at sales (fast talk, good looks, industrial-strength self-confidence), he’s back on the street with the 1987 stock market collapse before finding opportunity on Wall Street at a mid-size firm.

In no time on his new job, Belfort captures the attention of Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned, babbling stock salesman with hilarious tics and mannerisms. He takes Belfort under his wing, teaching him the ropes and which end is easier on the neck.

Belfort’s greed and skills take him far. An accidental meeting with fellow bum from the hood Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) inspires him to tap Donnie as co-founder of a new company so he can strike out on his own. Belfort forms brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont (you can’t get more WASPy-comforting than that), where, on a roll building a fortune as a stock pumper and IPO cowboy pushing mostly garbage, he will have made $49 million by age 30.

On the social front, Belfort’s also an affront. No mere booze and drug addict, the pleasure-seeking “wolf” is also a bed fella with a sexual addiction, in spite of being married to Teresa (Cristin Milioti). He can’t get enough of women, mostly hookers and one-night stands, and boldly brings sex into his offices with racy shows and parties. Easing Belfort’s way to amazing debauchery in both his business and social activities is his permissive father Max (Rob Reiner), Stratton’s CFO who merely scolds his son boss for excessive credit-card spending.

As the money piles up, so does excess. Belfort loses a wife and wins a new one in sexy supermodel Naomi (Margot Robbie). With many millions to throw around and demons fueling his drug and shopping addictions, he buys a yacht, personal helicopter, fleet of luxury cars, nice properties, and more.

But the dirty game of fraud and money laundering that he plays and his out-of-control Quaalude addiction catch the eye of local authorities and the SEC. FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) is especially determined to bring him in, but Belfort shows he knows his way around laws and law enforcers. Belfort hides much of his ill-gotten fortune in a Swiss bank and aligns himself with Swiss banker Saurel (Jean Dujardin), who’s a shady player in his own right.

While the characters of Wolf are not as malevolent as those of GoodFellas, they’re every bit as transgressive, obsessed and, to many sensibilities, downright disgusting. It would be entirely fair to brand Belfort with additional animal names (pig, snake, rat), but “wolf” and “wall” have that nice alliterative quality. Belfort, in real life, has reportedly reformed. Apparently, he’s now a successful motivational speaker and traditional family man with his booze, drugs and sex addictions behind him.

Comparisons to GoodFellas are inevitable but serve as a selling point that Belfort himself would recognize and leverage. Yes, audiences love screen versions of all kinds of “American hustles.” But Wolf’s impeccable casting, performances, pacing and direction put a fresh face on the otherwise familiar. There’s also an unexpected high quotient of humor as DiCaprio and Hill do admirable jobs of reminding that jerks are so often unintentionally laughable.

Winter’s script is a gem of zingers and biz-speak, especially the seductive empowerment speeches that DiCaprio’s simmering, smoking Belfort feeds to his sales force. The film’s forceful visual component (rapid-fire editing, cinematography, production design) turns the blasts of decrepitude at work and play into unforgettable and deliciously distasteful moments.