At one point in The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) notes incredulously that the federal investigator pursuing him “thinks I’m Gordon Gekko.” Belfort is certainly no Gordon Gekko — which, for us as viewers, is a very good thing.
We already have a cinematic Gordon Gekko: Michael Douglas’s iconic Wall Street character who helped to define the ’80s with his maxim “greed is good.” Belfort has as much greed — and charisma — as Gekko, but he doesn’t bother justifying it with any personal philosophy or economic theory. He simply mentions offhandedly that he deserves his marks’ money because “I know how to spend it better.”
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the memoir of Belfort—a real-life stockbroker who built an empire on penny stocks in the ’80s and ’90s — is a wonderfully fast and funny ride. A central contradiction in a lot of films about immoral characters is that they want to condemn the immorality while also milking it for trailer-worthy scenes of debauchery. Scorcese understands why people fall into lives of sex, drugs, greed, and corruption: because it’s a hell of a lot of fun, until it’s not.
Thus, as Belfort’s fortunes rise and rise on the backs of naïve working-class investors who can’t afford to lose the money he knows damn well they’re going to lose, we’re spared clichéd come-to-Jesus scenes or filmic finger-wagging. There are plenty of bumps in Belfort’s road to riches, but he laughs them off and Scorsese largely lets him. The Wolf of Wall Street does have a conscience — more on that later — but Scorsese, working with screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) largely lets us make of Belfort what we will.
Our ride with Belfort is often exhilarating, thanks to the crisp work of Scorsese and to a superpowered performance by DiCaprio, who hasn’t been this gleefully unfettered since he danced in steerage. An early GIF of DiCaprio dancing in Wolf of Wall Street was widely assumed to be from The Great Gatsby — which makes sense because, as Belfort, DiCaprio has as much fun as we’d like to think someone who’s ridiculously wealthy ought to have. Belfort may not be spending his money better than the working-class stiffs who he stiffed, but he certainly knows how to buy what he wants: lots of hookers and lots of blow.
There should be a special Academy Award for whoever decided to put Jonah Hill in a Martin Scorsese movie. Hill is the opera buffa to Joe Pesci’s opera seria in films like Goodfellas: in Wolf of Wall Street, Hill plays the pitbull role with goofy abandon. Whether he’s screaming at an insufficiently motivated employee, overdosing on ‘ludes, or screwing a coworker who’s simultaneously sucking DiCaprio’s dick, Hill’s giddy excitement is consistently giggle-worthy.
The high point of Wolf of Wall Street — and one of the high points of this year in film — is a long scene that has DiCaprio and Hill popping high-powered quaaludes just in time for a crisis to hit their firm. Their attempt to contain the damage while they can barely control their own muscles becomes an epic sequence of physical comedy that made me laugh harder than any similar scene since John Ritter got electrotherapy from his ex in Blake Edwards’s Skin Deep.
DiCaprio’s voiceover dialogue in that scene includes a reference to cerebral palsy that got a big laugh at the screening I attended despite its being patently offensive; I wasn’t quite sure what to think about that, and there are other ways in which The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t necessarily get an ethical pass on the grounds of verisimilitude. In a film that’s chockablock with naked women, why does the camera have to cut away to an oblique angle when Hill whips his peen out? Whether the lack of male full-frontal nudity resulted from an artistic decision, a concession to the MPAA’s sexist ratings policy, or a combination of both factors, the inequity is uncomfortable.
Belfort likes to give his sales force motivational speeches, the premise of which is that they can — and should — live the American dream. At one point, he draws tears by pointing out that he helped an early employee pay her kid’s tuition; she later shared in the firm’s vast financial success. Scorcese’s riskiest decision in this film is to let speeches like that ride: to let DiCaprio (literally) charm the pants off of everyone in sight. The director trusts that we can and will draw our own conclusions about how Belfort’s apparent rhetorical and strategic gifts square with his equally apparent greed, sexism, and narcissism — that we can and will decide for ourselves why and whether Belfort’s is a story that needs to be told.
The Wolf of Wall Street is enormously entertaining, whether or not it’s a guilty pleasure. Belfort seems proud of the way he’s lived his life; should we feel proud about reliving it?