Reviewed by Jay Sizemore
If you want a picture to hang on the idea of everything that is wrong with America, look no further than Martin Scorsese’s latest classic, The Wolf of Wall Street. In the hands of a lesser director, this film could easily have fallen prey to its own devices, but Scorsese is master of his craft, and instead of providing a senseless parade of debauchery and decadence, we get a biting and hilarious satire under the guise of a wild-ride biopic.
This is the story of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a man easily seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, hooked into the worship of wealth that pushes so many beyond their personal inhibitions when it comes to corporate morals or legalities. Leonardo DiCaprio is mesmerizing in the role of a lifetime, and insatiably chews up the screen like a rabid dog for the three hours of non-stop time he gets here. It is instantly obvious why Belfort was able to achieve such levels of success — DiCaprio’s portrayal effortlessly oozes passion and charisma, while reveling in the primal release of the id. Belfort was a man who could sell water to a drowning man, and as a stockbroker, this skill proved both blessing and curse, earning Belfort the wealth he desired, but also leading to his own demise. Along for the ride is Jonah Hill in a gloriously absurd role as his business partner, and Margot Robbie as his supermodelesq wife. Matthew McConaughey rounds off the cast with a pivotal opening scene that sets the bar for Belfort’s expectations, something he proves to have reached and surpassed in the closing act.
Only a filmmaker as powerful as Scorsese could get away with an R rating and put this level of excess on the screen. In DiCaprio’s opening scene, he is blowing cocaine into a hooker’s rectum with a straw. There is an uproarious moment where Jonah Hill publicly masturbates, including a shot of an erect penis. There are wild orgies and multiple scenes of oral sex. Drugs and profanity in nearly every scene. But it is not without purpose. This movie shows how wealth taken to extremes can remove the societal barriers of the subconscious and make every desire a free-for-all, revealing the true natures of the people involved.
Make no mistake, if this movie feels familiar in subject for Scorsese, it should. This is still a mob movie, even though it is set in Wall Street. But these are mobsters who are glorified instead of vilified in America, leading the lives that we wish we could attain instead of avoid. This type of wealth is probably admired beyond borders, making the message one of broader scope than possibly intended, a criticism of capitalism that on its surface looks like a celebration. The events put on display here are so ridiculous you can’t help but laugh at them. There is a moment of priceless physical and situational humor involving Belfort and some old qualudes that had me laughing until tears rolled down my face. In the climax of the downward spiral, the tone shifts to a more serious one, correctly showing that lives of excess eventually lead to ruin. Some of the conversations seem to go on past their comfort zone, which some might think is a flaw, but which I think is a brilliant directorial move, as it shows a realistic example of this type of human interaction. The best moment of the movie is the final scene, a startlingly accurate example of why people gifted with exorbitant levels of charisma will always be able to achieve success, because people will line up to buy whatever they are selling. Scorsese is the best film director alive, and he continues to prove it with every movie he makes.
Jay Sizemore is a film critic for the magazine.