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.


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.

Yes, The Wolf of Wall Street is a solid three hours long—an earlier cut ran to three-and-a-half—and it would be a better film if it were shorter. But it’s easy to see why Scorsese was loath to cut further than he did. This may be the highest-velocity three-hour movie I’ve ever seen, a delirious and borderline addictive wash of adrenaline, testosterone, and controlled substances.

The screenplay, by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) is a marvel of indecency, featuring hilarious set pieces regarding cousin marriage, Quaaludes, and the various grades of prostitute. DiCaprio is a mesmerizingly over-the-top slice of ham—part motivational speaker (think Tom Cruise in Magnolia), part football coach (think Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday), and all sleaze. The supporting cast, which also features Jean Dujardin and Kyle Chandler, is uniformly terrific. Even Rob Reiner (who plays Belfort’s dad) delivers big-screen excellence, for the first time on either side of the camera in longer than I care to remember.

But the true star of The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Charles Scorsese, who at age 71 comes uncorked like a well-shaken bottle of vintage champagne. The movie plays like a master’s course in cinematic technique delivered by the master himself, crammed with giddy effects and visual jokes. A crowd parts for DiCaprio as it did in Titanic, and there is a brilliantly naughty variation on the epochal “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” shot from The Graduate. There are witty references, too, to The Equalizer, Tod Browning’s Freaks, and Benihana. And don’t get me started on the comic tour de force in which Popeye’s spinach is analogized to—no, you’ll have to wait and see it for yourself.

From the first-person narration to the exquisitely clever soundtrack to the overall rags-to-riches-to-indictment story arc, The Wolf of Wall Street is clearly intended to be the prodigal son (and, yes, it is definitely a boy) of Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Belfort claws his working-class way into a manicured life, creates his own (non-homicidal) mini-mob family of criminal loyalists, and is ultimately undone by his appetites and vanity. Does Wolf have the heft or depth of Goodfellas? Of course not. The stakes are lower, the tone breezier, the excesses vastly more excessive. But you know what they say: second time, farce.

The Wolf of Wall Street is not a subtle movie, or a thoughtful movie, or a particularly innovative movie. But for those susceptible to its vulgar charms, Scorsese’s latest is a great—no, a fucking great—movie movie.