Cinema as bacchanal, and somehow you don’t love it but still envy it. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is a hyper adrenaline-fuel thrill ride that puts your mind in a buzz-stimulated high. This is an extreme visual plunge into debauched sex and drugs, so graphic it will be despised by many. I’ve seen “Fellini’s Satyricon” (1970) which graphically depicted Roman excess in the times before Christ, and so if there was ever a modern time in our lifetime when that level of debauched sex and drugs was practiced in America it was the 1980’s Wall Street days when stock brokers and financial raiders snorted blow, caroused with hookers and partied like crazy 24/7.
The middle-class Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an eager kid who impresses his boss Mark Hannah (Matthew McConaughey has one bravura scene of a drunkard monologue), and while that blue chip company goes under, Jordan finds other work at a brokerage that deals exclusively with the S&P 500, penny stocks. He learns an unusual pump and dump tactic: artificially blowing up the value of bunkum stock, and selling it at over-inflated value for high-yield commissions, after which point select investors will lose their money. Belfort opens Stratton Oakmont incorporated, going after middle class investors before shucking their schemes to rich investors.
In his rise to power and wealth, Jordan is married to blah New Yawker Teresa (Cristin Milioti) and she’s a transparent figure from the start. It almost feels like she means less to us than even him. We sense early that Jordan will dump her for another wife, and that will be Miller Lite girl and supermodel Naomi (Margot Robbie, striking as the foxy high maintenance blonde). Best friend Donnie Azoff is played by the hysterical Jonah Hill (a supporting player MVP), playing a chipmunk-toothed rascal who unzips his pants in public and falls over a lot – and makes the firm millions, too.
Cocaine and Quaaludes become part of Jordan’s daily habit, he drives a Lamborghini, owns his own helicopter and yacht, and throws perpetual wild parties at his office. These office parties are driven by unabashed passion and fanaticism, occasionally a woman is humiliated as part of the celebration. Occasionally you envy this level of frenzy and want to be a part of it. Sometimes you curse at the film for its crude humor. And sometimes, when Jordan has overdosed on Quaaludes and crashes his car around town, you’re slap-happy by the film’s audacious black humor. Other times, you find Jordan despicable.
Scorsese and DiCaprio financed this raucous film independently ($100 million price tag), which is important, because to make a film this explicitly bacchanal would never fly within the studio system. I want to mention again the buzz-stimulated high I got from the film, which I’ve felt before only a few times in cinema with “Requiem for a Dream” and “Enter the Void,” or other films as diverse as “Apocalypse Now” or “The Cell,” or several from Kubrick. I can’t say that I was expecting that kind of visceral sensation from a financial backdrop drama. And while the film is savvy, keep in mind it doesn’t have the insider genius of Oliver Stone’s 1987 masterpiece “Wall Street” which is still the Bible of big business films.
In Scorsese’s entire oeuvre, “GoodFellas” is his giddiest masterpiece of any, and it’s always given me the most buzz from its’ macho bad boy pandemonium. “Wolf” put on just as big a spell. If there’s a reason though that I don’t quite feel like it’s among Scorsese’s most essential work is that I didn’t get the feeling that Scorsese himself was at his most impassioned by the story he’s telling, but that Scorsese was more entertained by it in a superficial but ardent way for it. Scorsese, as always, is impassioned if anything by his own master craft which is apparent aplenty in “Wolf.” He likes telling a story like this because he gets to show off his visual flair.
Co-stars Kyle Chandler as an FBI agent on Jordan’s tail, Jean Dujardin as a French-Swiss banker, Jon Bernthal as a muscle for hire, and Rob Reiner as Jordan’s equally crude but money-wise father. DiCaprio himself is asked to age something like a range of 15 years, which I don’t feel he pulls off as a physical transformation. But DiCaprio is ecstatic and turbulent as ever, it’s nonetheless a fun performance to watch.
179 Minutes. Rated R.
CRIME DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / WEEKEND VIEWING DEBAUCHERY
Film Cousins: “Citizen Kane” (1941); “Fellini’s Satyricon” (1970, Italy); “Wall Street” (1987); “The Boost” (1988); “Boiler Room” (2000); “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005).