Jordan Belfort, the main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, doesn’t really think much of the audience watching his story unfold on the big screen. He frequently breaks the fourth wall in order to try and explain the complicated and highly illegal financial dealings that he has made to make him insanely wealthy, but he regularly gives up and mockingly speaks in a language we all understand: money. After all, Jordan has plenty of it, and it is disturbingly fun to watch him chaotically spend it on drugs, prostitutes, bribes, and all manners of debauchery.
Truth be told, Jordan Belfort is an asshole. He protects his conscience with proclamations about the American Dream and ideals of being the Robin Hood of Wall Street – only swindling the top 1% - but the truth is that he is as money and power hungry as they come. Because of the protagonist's truly terrible personality, if the movie made any kind of effort to get the audience to sympathize with the lead it would have gone down in flames, but Scorsese is too smart a filmmaker for that. In The Wolf of Wall Street he recognized a story of insanity, lewdness, depravity, ridiculousness, greed and incredible entertainment value, and that’s exactly what he has brought to the screen.
Adapted by Terrence Winter from Belfort’s memoirs, The Wolf of Wall Street charts Jordan’s rise from being a 22-year-old newbie on Wall Street to one of the most powerful individuals in the American economy. Armed with an amazing gift of gab in sales, a staggeringly stupid but loyal inner circle, and a monstrously illegal strategy that allows him to earn huge commissions on bullshit stocks, the financial wizard nicknamed “Wolfie” makes millions upon millions during his heyday in the 90s, leading to a life of absurd excess. This all becomes threatened when the federal government begins to snoop around and tug at the base of the house of cards, but of course, Jordan doesn’t let his dream die without a fight.
DiCaprio has been Scorsese’s go-to lead for features for more than a decade now (the exception being 2011’s Hugo), and their collaborations have led to some excellent films, but The Wolf of Wall Street is their best yet – largely thanks to the star’s performance. Gross and awful as Jordan may ultimately be in the eyes of the audience, in his own world he is able to swindle his way to the top by appearing charming, powerful and magnetic, which DiCaprio does effortlessly, unleashing a kind of charisma we’ve never seen from him before. Even when Belfort turns and talks directly to the camera it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a performance, as the actor hypnotizes you with his portrayal. This only serves to break down a barrier between movie-goers and the movie, and it makes it all the more outrageous when we see him snorting coke out of a prostitute’s ass crack while screaming about how much he loves drugs.
While DiCaprio’s performance alone is worth the price of admission, that shouldn’t undervalue the movie’s perfect and outstanding supporting cast. As Jordan blazes his trail through the world of high finance, he regularly encounters new and ridiculous characters that leave a lasting impression both on the protagonist and the audience. Matthew McConaughey (as Jordan’s chest-thumping, coke snorting early days mentor), Margot Robbie (as Jordan’s Brooklyn accent-struck, jaw-droppingly gorgeous lover-turned wife), and Rob Reiner (as Jordan’s hot-headed, foul-mouthed father) all properly add to the madness that is Wolf of Wall Street, but if there’s anyone who really comes close to stealing DiCaprio’s spotlight it’s Jonah Hill. The actor is given gold to work with – sporting mysteriously pearly white teeth and a backstory that involves being married to his first cousin – and Hill fully capitalizes, delivering one of the most delightfully bizarre performances of the year.
Daunting as the film’s nearly three-hour runtime is, credit must be given to Scorsese, Winter and editor Thelma Schoonmaker for the brilliant pacing. The movie opens with a montage of scenes featuring in-office dwarf throwing, cocaine consumption, sex and even a helicopter crash, and yet somehow the story increases the madness with nearly every scene, and keeps the audience engaged in the story. There is the occasional lull, as the high energy level has to take a break, but it never takes long for the movie to get back on track and enthralling. It’s quite remarkable to watch a 179 minute film and then feel the immediate need to watch it all again while the end credits roll.
Watching The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s incredibly hard not to be reminded of Scorsese’s brilliant 90s gangster film Goodfellas. Both titles tell epic stories of an individual's quest for that great mythological American Dream and how quickly and thoroughly that path can be corrupted; and both are uniquely spellbinding and brilliant. Now that the genius filmmaker is 71 years old, the truth is that there likely won’t be many more of his movies coming in the future, but if he can continue producing films on the level of The Wolf of Wall Street it will be impossible to let him go.