Inspired by a true story (yes, another one), The Wolf of Wall Street shows the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Arriving on Wall Street a naive but ambitious young man, Belfort joins an established company where his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) immediately advises him to jerk off at least twice a day and do cocaine. The goal is to not feel any stress and to stay focused on taking rich people’s money away. The company promptly fails on Black Monday shortly afterwards.
Unemployed, Belfort takes a job with a penny stock dealer and thanks to his unique, aggressive pitching style he quickly makes a small fortune that he uses to hire Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a salesman living in the same building as Belfort and his wife, and start his own company, Stratton Oakmont Inc. He hires his friends, most of them drug dealers, and trains them to pump and dump stock onto unsuspecting customers.
The scam is successful, and after Forbes features Belfort and Stratton Oakmont in an article that dubs him “the wolf of Wall Street” (you can read the original article here), hundreds of young hopeful stockbrokers are knocking on his door to get hired. Everything seems to be going well for the fraudsters, but behind the scenes FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) has already started investigating the seemingly reputable company.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale of wonderfully disgusting debauchery, a highly cynical celebration of villainy and a black comedy that perverts every last vice into a virtue. The film lacks any subtlety and that’s what makes it work so well: it’s a freak show of depraved people that have tricked their way into so much money they lost all their morals and arrived at a stage where they literally don’t know what to do with all their wealth anymore. At one moment, Belfort just throws money into the bin, and another time he pays a female member of staff to have all her hair shaved off in front of everyone.
Scorsese is subversive in his portrayal of money’s corrupting effects on the people surrounding Jordan and Donnie. While we do get to see a woman smiling through her tears of humiliation as her hair is shaven off, she is drowned out visually and aurally by the half-naked men and women dancing around her and Jordan Belfort howling on stage (yes, he had a stage built in the office).
The true achievement of The Wolf of Wall Street lies in the way the humour makes you overlook most of the corruption, it makes you laugh at the midget-throwing, the gay orgy organised by Belfort’s butler, the arrogance of taping money to a woman’s breasts to smuggle it into Switzerland. And then, when you come out of the film it hits you all at once at how truly horrible you should really feel about yourself for laughing at all of those things. Above all, you’ll feel especially bad for vaguely hoping that the FBI won’t catch Belfort.
At three hours and a very accomplished script, The Wolf of Wall Street is undeniably Scorsese’s latest magnum opus, but it is also proof that DiCaprio’s greatest talent might be in comedy. When Jordan Belfort is pumped so full of drugs he cannot move his legs anymore and resorts to crawling downstairs and into his car by imitating the movements of his baby, you’ll find yourself with tears running down your face. To say that Jonah Hill is a revelation after what is mostly a string of mediocre comedies in his career would be an understatement, for he plays the greedy, drug-addicted best friend so exquisitely he almost steals the show from DiCaprio.
The Wolf of Wall Street flies by, especially for a three hour movie, and with one scene more outrageous than the last, it feels more like ninety minutes. The year is young, but this could well be the comedy of the year. It definitely is an instant classic either way.