The Vulgar Genius of The Wolf of Wall Street

Scorcese's new film is fast, funny, filthy—and among his best of the last 20 years.
Paramount

Let’s be clear from the outset: The Wolf of Wall Street is not a “scathing indictment of capitalism run amok” or a “cautionary fable for our time” or any of the comparable high-minded plaudits that are likely to be thrown its way. Yes, Martin Scorsese’s new feature is undeniably topical: the story of a rogue Wall Street trader, Jordan Belfort, who made himself and his partners fabulously wealthy at the expense of the broader American public and got off—even after multiple fraud convictions—nearly scot-free. But the film displays almost no interest whatsoever in Belfort’s victims, and it is extravagantly incurious regarding the mechanisms by which he took their money. If this is a message movie, it’s one that features a message suitable for a cue card.

None of which, incidentally, is intended as an indictment. The Wolf of Wall Street is a magnificent black comedy, fast, funny, and remarkably filthy. Like a Bad Santa, Scorsese has offered up for the holidays a truly wicked display of cinematic showmanship—one that also happens to be among his best pictures of the last 20 years.

Based on the memoirs of the real-life Belfort, the story follows his meteoric rise from a penny-stock broker operating out of a strip mall in the late 1980s to a twentysomething tycoon, complete with mansions, a lingerie-model wife, a yacht nearly the size of the QE2, a helicopter, and two bodyguards—“both of them named Rocco.” Oh, and drugs and hookers. Lots of drugs and hookers. The latter he estimates he frolicked with five or six times a week on average. The former included Quaaludes, Adderall, Xanax, pot, cocaine (of course), and morphine “because it’s awesome.”

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, narrating his own tale with the help of frequent demolitions of the fourth wall. (“No, no, no. My Ferrari was white—like Don Johnson’s in Miami Vice—not red.”) As a Wall Street newbie, he absorbs wisdom from an older broker-guru (Matthew McConaughey, in a magnificent but all-too-small role), who offers invaluable lessons about money, coke, and masturbation (“When you get really good at it, you’ll be stroking and thinking about money”). Soon enough, Belfort is in turn imparting such wisdom to his own acolytes (including a very good—and very funny—Jonah Hill), and the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont is born.

Stratton Oakmont is essentially a white-shoe criminal enterprise that fleeces its clients by day and throws sex-booze-and-drug-suffused “motivational” exercises by night—and, for that matter, by day, too. (Eventually these activities require the posting of a sign in the office declaring, “No fucking in the bathroom between 9 and 7.” It is, of course, ignored.) These and related depravities continue for about two and a half hours of the movie’s running time, with a few close calls from the SEC and FBI along the way, until the final act, when the tone turns darker and Belfort finally gets his astonishingly belated (and decidedly insufficient) comeuppance.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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