This I know about The Wolf of Wall Street: It’s not Martin Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s certainly his funniest.
It really is a shame that this movie comes out one week after American Hustle, another period film about con artists and hedonistic excess and what happens when desperate crooks meet the rich and stupid. The shame is that David O. Russell’s film is better, not to mention shorter by almost an hour. This doesn’t reflect well on Scorsese’s movie, which nevertheless has considerable merits, the biggest of which is its lead performance.
That comes from Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays Jordan Belfort, the real-life fraudster who founded a brokerage firm in the 1990s and made more than $1 billion manipulating penny stocks before being busted by the FBI. The film takes us from his beginnings working on Wall Street for a mentor (Matthew McConaughey, basically given one scene, which he knocks out of the park) who instructs Jordan to rip off his clients because the promise of further profit will always lure them back even when their stocks lose money. Jordan takes that advice to heart as he hires a bunch of marijuana-dealing friends and puts them to work selling cheap stocks under the respectable-sounding company name of Stratton Oakmont.
The Wolf of Wall Street strongly resembles American Hustle, and it’s even closer to Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, with its merry band of outlaws wielding phones instead of guns. Otherwise, it’s the same tale of testosterone-crazed guys bilking the system and blowing their ill-gotten gains on drugs, hookers, liquor, fancy restaurants, and shiny toys. As the law catches up to them, they grow more and more frantic in their attempts to evade prison. It’s even told from the viewpoint of a former bad guy who cooperated when the feds backed him into a corner. Just like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, Jordan turns to the camera and lets us in on all the dirty little secrets that he’s not-so-secretly proud of.
The main thing that recommends this movie is DiCaprio, who badly needed to do something like this. After he portrayed a string of serious, intense, tortured heroes in The Departed, Revolutionary Road, Inception, Shutter Island, and J. Edgar, the well was starting to run dry for him. However, in last year’s Django Unchained, he managed to loosen up, cutting his character’s villainy with lightness and humor to chilling effect.
This is his first out-and-out comic performance, and he handles it with the sort of confidence that has come to be his trademark. He’s good in that early scene with his mentor, taking in the boss’ advice (lots of cocaine and masturbation are good) and keeping up with him as he chants and beats his chest in the middle of a restaurant. That scene requires him to be more of a straight man, but he’s even better when he’s the one generating the laughs. He delivers a priceless bit when Jordan has a bad reaction to some Quaaludes and, finding himself unable to walk upright, tries to roll himself out to his car. Seeing DiCaprio look so comfortable in this extended piece of slapstick is worth watching the whole movie for.
He has plenty of help, chief among them Jonah Hill as Jordan’s corporate vice president. Hill has made a terrific comic partner (he’s too prominent to be called a sidekick) for actors as different as Michael Cera, Channing Tatum, and Brad Pitt. He works just as well with DiCaprio here, but he’s quite good on his own merits evoking this nebbishy New York Jew who embraces the high life with a vengeance. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin turns up for a memorable cameo as a slimy Swiss banker who condescends to Jordan while helping him stash his money. On the women’s side, there’s Australian newcomer Margot Robbie, making one hell of a first impression as Jordan’s insanely hot but increasingly disenchanted wife. Her Long Island accent is killer — seriously, you could cut through steel with that thing.
As the money pours in, Stratton Oakmont’s office becomes host to midget-tossing games, armies of strippers, and a half-naked marching band. Scorsese stages the hijinks smoothly enough that this movie’s three hours fly by. What’s missing here is the undercurrent of madness that makes American Hustle feel so much more dangerous. Yet it’s worth noting that Russell’s film would probably be impossible without the freewheeling influence of Scorsese’s earlier films. The Wolf of Wall Street may just be Scorsese repeating himself, but the story hasn’t lost much in the retelling.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Terence Winter, based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir. Rated R.