BY STEWART SMITH
“The Wolf of Wall Street” is a fireball of a film. It’s slick, bursting with style and energy, and yet there’s a fire that burns beneath the surface, one that reveals the anger driving director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) rose through Wall Street’s ranks with the speed and impact of a bolt of lightning, going from being a phone boy for a prestigious firm to shoveling penny stocks to starting his own firm out of a garage to making nearly a million dollars a week in less than a few years time.
Were this almost any other person, this might be the perfect underdog story, a rags-to-riches tale that proves that being the smartest guy in the room mixed with a go-getter attitude can allow just about anyone to achieve the American Dream. Instead, this is barn burner that shows how a once bright-eyed and ambitious wannabe broker rose to the top through manipulation, lies and greed.
There’s been a lot of talk about the salacious and debauched content featured in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which is all based on a real person and real events. I’m not sure what all you’ve been told, but chances are it’s as bad as you’ve heard. Profanity flows like water. There is lots of nudity and sex. Mountains of cocaine and barrels of pills are shoved up these characters’ noses and down their throats. There is outrageous behavior that would make Caligula blush.
That’s the entire point.
The life that Belfort and his associates lead is grotesque. Belfort has sex with anything that moves, constantly cheats on his wives, and gleefully admits that he can’t go a single day without a rainbow spectrum of uppers and downers to keep him at peak performance. And all of this, the cars, the yachts, the women, the drugs, the opulence, the depravity, all of it was made possible because he preyed on people who were too stupid and/or too desperate to know they were being taken advantage of. His entire way of life is fueled by corruption, selfishness and greed and he is only further propelled because he has a small army of young men and women who are just as hungry and greedy as he was when he started. They treat him as their king, practically a god unto them. But the film still doesn’t condone Belfort’s behavior. The only audience members who will really approve of what he does are, much like his “subjects,” the ones who secretly wish they could live like he does.
But as high as a man like Belfort can get (both metaphorically and literally), there’s always a crash. And that crash is where Scorsese’s anger finally rears its head. For the majority of the film Belfort has done nothing but savor the fruits of his lifestyle, and when the chickens finally come home to roost, he stands the chance to face the harsh consequences of his reality.
But he doesn’t. Instead, because of how our justice system works, Belfort was able to get a measly three years in a barbed wire resort before going right back into business for himself. And that’s after he beat his wife, relapsed into cocaine, attempted to kidnap his daughter and then tried to warn his friends of incriminating themselves as he wore a wire for the FBI.
People have complained that the film only shows how lavish and glamorous Belfort’s lifestyle is while ignoring the lives he’d ruined. I’d argue that’s also part of the point. Belfort still gets to make money for himself (albeit through a different career). Meanwhile, the countless people whose money he’d taken and whose lives he’d manipulated are left out in the cold.
There’s a shot of the FBI agent (played by Kyle Chandler) who went after Belfort riding on the subway. He looks around him and all he sees are average, regular people. People who probably have mortgage problems and debt and troubles at home. They keep going with their lives and deal with the same troubles and problems they always have, while Belfort barely gets a slap on the wrist before being unleashed back into the wild, instantly going back to the predatory tactics that made him his initial fortune. DiCaprio’s wild, intense, clenched face in the final scene says it all.
Speaking of DiCaprio, I’m not sure I would have ever pegged him to be the one to become one of Scorsese’s best collaborators, but there’s no denying the quality of their work together. It’s unfair to say DiCaprio is Scorsese’s “new De Niro” because the work they’ve done feels so different from that other collaboration.
That said, this is far and away the best film DiCaprio and Scorsese have made together. Leo has never felt this propulsive and volatile in a role before. Anyone who thinks he’s still just some baby-faced heartthrob simply isn’t paying attention. He’s incredible here, sustaining an energy that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from him. Belfort is a horrible, horrible human being and DiCaprio makes him fascinating to watch even as you’re in awe of just how despicable he becomes.
Scorsese seems to have been feeding off that energy through his lens because “The Wolf of Wall Street” never relents. There is never a figurative moment for us to catch our breath and the result is a film that feels like it was made by a director twice his junior. It’s like we’re getting the Scorsese who made “Goodfellas” all over again. This is top-tier Scorsese.
It’s a shame that so many people are going to get stuck on the fact that the film shows graphic depictions of a corrupt, greedy and lecherous lifestyle. Scorsese wants you to get mad at how this man (and by extension an entire subculture of Wall Street hawks) lives thanks to the money he essentially robs from regular folks. Are you mad? Good. You should be.