“This right here is the land of opportunity,” Jordan Belfort tells his fellow stockbrokers, in the midst of one of his high-energy company meetings on the sales floor, about midway through Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. “Stratton-Oakmont is America.” That’s the name of their firm, introduced in the dignified television commercial that opens the movie, in which a gravitas-dripping narrator explains the company’s responsibility and respectability. Scorsese then hard-cuts to a dwarf-tossing competition on the sales floor. The message is clear: this is America, and these are the greedy, drug-fueled children who just about drove it into the fucking ground.
The film is based on the memoir of Belfort, a “former member of the middle class” who became a millionaire by manipulating the market and running a penny-stock boiler room. He gets his first job working for a big-shot broker named Mark Hanna (played by Matthew McConaughey, in a brief but delicious turn), who sits him down for lunch on his first day and explains exactly what they are, and what they do. “It’s all a fugazi,” Hanna tells him. “It’s not fuckin’ real. We don’t create shit. We don’t build anything.”
The film treats Wall Street with the same cynical contempt. Those who’ve always suspected that the stock market was full of shit, a speculative Ponzi scheme, will delight in how Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter treat “the Street” as an elaborate con game — hell, at one point, Belfort (whose narration frequently involves direct address to camera) stops in the midst of an explanation of IPOs to give us a smile and a smug “I know you’re not following what I’m saying.” They know it’s double talk; they’re banking on it. What Scorsese does get into is the logistics of how they manipulate it, from the process of slinging shit at a high-class firm like Hanna’s to the high-return draw of penny stocks at the scuzzy Long Island firm he ends up at after Black Monday to the sheer mechanics of getting $20 million into a Swiss bank.
As in the best of his work (Goodfellas and Casino particularly), Scorsese is fascinated by procedure, by drawing back the curtain and showing us how things happen, though he keeps the picture nimble and entertaining enough to avoid burying himself in the minutiae. In fact, his filmmaking has never been more confident — fast, crisp, and tight. Observing the roar of the floor when it comes to life on his first day, Belfour purrs, “I was hooked in seconds,” captivated by the rush, the energy, the electricity; he chases it for the rest of the film, and so does Scorsese, whose filmmaking pulses with it. The picture is deliriously alive, reveling in its whip-pans and gliding dollies, tinkering with perception and reality, cackling with self-awareness (early on, Belfort’s voice-over corrects a visual — “No, no, my Ferrari was white” — and the vehicle’s color changes in a blink). And as far as the inexplicably clamorous concern over the film’s three-hour running time, rest assured: the last thing this movie does is drag. Instead, its expanded length allows Scorsese to take his time unfurling a beautiful mini-masterpiece of a scene like, for example, Belfort’s first encounter with the FBI agent who wants to take him down (Kyle Chandler, aces), as they circle one another, each sniffing the other out.
And it’s hard to get bored when a story has as much pure debauchery as this one. Once the money starts rolling in, the firm (and Jordan’s life) becomes what is variously dubbed a “greed fest,” a “coke fest,” and (most accurately) a “bacchanal.” The filmmaker enjoys their excesses, and has a ball dramatizing them, but he harbors no illusions about exactly what we’re looking at here. The most informative scene in the picture finds Belfort’s father (a perfect Rob Reiner), who works for the firm, interrogating his son and partners about an oversized AmEx bill. They snicker and crack each other up; they make up shitty excuses. Scorsese stays with the scene longer than most might, and the longer he holds on them, the sharper the point: these are drunken frat boys, overgrown adolescents, and how pathetic is it that they had access to not only this much money, but this much power?
That’s why so much of the preemptive clucking about the picture glamorizing these coked-out bros and their bad behavior is so wildly off the mark — Scorsese isn’t celebrating these people, he’s mocking them (and mercilessly at that). He’s right to pitch The Wolf of Wall Street as a black comedy, because the only way to comprehend these assholes is to laugh at them. And it’s impossible to presume that he’s doing anything but that as he gives us an entire scene of Belfort, torn down to the ground on aged, high-power Quaaludes, forced to roll himself down a flight of stone steps, or Belfort and right-hand man Donnie Azoff squirming around on a kitchen floor, groaning unintelligibly and drooling on each other, wrapped up in a phone cord. And for their part, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, who play them, have the timing and bounce of a great comedy team, riffing off each other with ease and sly one-upsmanship.
It’s all very funny, until it isn’t. The dark turn that we’re right to expect in this kind of story comes with unexpected impact and flinch-inducing violence, and that’s when the full force of Scorsese’s skill becomes apparent. We’ve been so busy laughing that we didn’t notice he slipped the knife in — until he turns it.
Though it ends well before the 2008 financial meltdown, The Wolf of Wall Street may be the most instructive movie about that disaster yet made, even more so than documentaries like Inside Job and Capitalism: A Love Story, because it gets at the rush, the draw, the very smell of the fuck-everybody greed which fueled it. Belfort’s big speeches on the sales floor (which DiCaprio delivers with endlessly entertaining bravado) are rah-rah pep rallies for vulture capitalism, and there’s an illuminating moment in one when he talks about the success of one of his associates, and gets genuinely choked up — but only because he’s talking about money, which is all that matters. “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich,” he instructs his army of slicked-up economic terrorists, and when he does, Scorsese is offering up a pure distillation of the cold, black heart at the center of the American Dream.
The Wolf of Wall Street is out Christmas Day in wide release.