Anyone looking for the moralistic heart pumping away at the core of The Wolf of Wall Street will be sorely disappointed. At 71, director Martin Scorsese doesn’t seem interested in taking anyone to task for the sordid behavior rendered so explicitly in his magnificent 23rd feature. Like the characters we follow for three exhilarating, insanely entertaining hours, Scorsese is just looking for a good time.
And man, does he ever find it. No one is stuck in space or arguing with dragons, but Wolf is as long on cinematic spectacle as anything we’ve seen this year. The pace is dizzying, the energy is contagious, and the humor is blacker than Gordon Gekko’s heart. It’s three full hours of loud, brash, full-tilt filmmaking, and it’s one of Scorsese’s best movies.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives his most energetic and seductive performance so far as Jordan Belfort, a real-life stockbroker who made a fortune in the ’90s on penny-stock rackets and other investment scams. When we first meet Jordan, he’s an earnest young man who isn’t particularly interested in the debauchery touted by his first Wall Street boss (Matthew McConaughey, in a short but terrific role). When the stock market crash of 1987 leaves Jordan unemployed, he’s determined to take any job he can find to support himself and his wife (Cristin Milioti).
It’s not long before he wanders into a cut-rate, strip-mall operation that sells penny stocks to mailmen and truck drivers. Jordan hears three magic words—“50 percent commission”—and soon he’s recruiting his own gang of morally flexible lunkheads and starting his own firm. Stratton Oakmont has a blue-blood name, but it caters to blue-collar workers who are all too easily scammed out of their meager savings. Soon Jordan and his cohorts are making millions of dollars a month.
The only thing they like more than making money is spending it. The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t pay much attention to how the Stratton Oakmont empire is built—Jordan frequently breaks the fourth wall to tell us he’s skipping the boring parts of his narrative—but we see, in lurid detail, what they do with it. Once you get past the first hour of Quaalude- and cocaine-fueled debauchery, you’ll find, well, two more hours of Quaalude- and cocaine-fueled debauchery, occasionally interrupted by the gang’s increasingly elaborate attempts to hide their money offshore when an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) takes an interest.
The movie also isn’t terribly interested in how Jordan went from being a guy who doesn’t want to drink a martini at lunch to an insatiable drug addict and hedonist who’s always looking for new and anatomically astonishing ways to combine the pleasures offered by prostitutes and cocaine. It’s enough to know that he used to be poor, he wanted to be rich, and he was willing to do anything to become a millionaire.
And while he’s a pretty vile guy and his actions are almost universally despicable, we never quite manage to hate him. Even at his worst, Jordan is identifiable enough to keep us engaged and charming enough to keep us interested. DiCaprio is simultaneously repulsive and appealing as he works his way through a laundry list of destructive behavior, and he’s surrounded by a uniformly excellent supporting cast, including Jonah Hill as his second-in-command, Rob Reiner as his Equalizer-obsessed father, and The Artist’s Jean Dujardin as a banker who lapses into French at the worst times imaginable.
If you’re familiar with Belfort’s second career as a motivational speaker and sales trainer, you know Wolf ends with less of a fall than a stumble. At least from a legal perspective, Belfort’s fate is not the cathartic comeuppance we hope lies in wait for those who exploit the lower classes so their yachts can be retrofitted with helipads, and Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter are not particularly concerned with condemning the lifestyle the film so enthusiastically depicts. (There are negative consequences besides death and prison, though, so Belfort doesn’t exactly get off scot-free.)
But here’s my question for all those who are uncomfortable with Scorsese’s refusal to wag an accusatory finger at Belfort and his henchmen: Do we really need a filmmaker to tell us that the reckless, exploitative hedonism on display in Wolf is bad? Can’t we be trusted to consult our own moral compasses and come to the conclusion, all by ourselves, that these guys are jerks?