In retrospect, it’s appropriate that the teaser trailer for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest opus from the incomparable Martin Scorsese, was scored to the pounding march of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” That song, along with the album it was taken from, “Yeezus,” is a scalding document of rampaging male id, meant to both exhilarate and appall in its lack of inhibitions. This film, chronicling the rise and fall of stockbroker/fiend Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the Hell he raised, drugs he took, money he stole and lives he ruined, is also a scalding, hilarious descent into madness and excess.
Scorsese has built a career out of confrontation. Dangerous men, some who poisoned by isolation (“Taxi Driver”), sexual impotence and personal inadequacy (“Raging Bull”) or who come on as charming rogues only to turn into drug-ravaged monsters (“Goodfellas”) populate his work. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the longest, wildest, and possibly greatest film from his late period, is an onslaught of all the great director’s favorite themes, as we see Belfort and his cohorts at Stratton Oakmont recreate their own Roman Empire, built on money, sex, cramming every toxin they can find into their blood streams, etc. “Wolf of Wall Street” is a comedy on the surface, a brilliant one for most of the run time. But there is a seed of darkness that runs through.
We meet Belfort in 1987, as a bright-eyed kid from Queens ready to chase the American Dream on Wall Street. This is more difficult than it seems, since the stock market is built on destroying everyone around you to chase the Almighty dollar. This is white male privelege on steroids. Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in ten minutes of reptilian lunacy) lays down the stockbroker mantra: get high, get rich, fuck everything and everyone. Black Monday sends Hanna into unemployment and Jordan to Long Island, selling penny stocks to people naive enough to think the stock market is supposed to be a fun way to make money. These stocks give 50 percent commission to the broker, a loophole that Jordan will exploit to build his empire.
The degenerates who populate his boiler room are led by Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, also totally unhinged), who will become the court fool to Belfort’s Lear, and jumps feet first into the stockbroker racket for the respect but mostly for the high you get from gobbling Quaaludes like candy.
The firm grows in power. Their office is filled with whores, dwarf-tossing, drugs, fighting and basically the fall of Western civilization in microcosm. Jordan dumps his first wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie, giving a nothing role cunning and depth), a piece of blonde royalty from Queens who toys with Jordan’s sexual dependency.
“Wolf of Wall Street” is paced like the film itself is on cocaine; it’s like the helicopter sequence from “Goodfellas” stretched to three hours. All the power these guys have reduces them to their base, primal states. More money, more sex, more drugs, more everything. DiCaprio is one hell of a ring-leader. His towering performance is the most complete he’s ever given. His movie-star charisma, his boyish, age-resistant face and his inner rage combine to make Jordan Belfort a force of nature. The movie is a force of nature, as Scorsese, and the dense, cracking script by “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner Terrence Winter, pummels us with debauchery. It’s the funniest movie he’s ever made; recalling the black-comic New York anarchy of his little-seen 1985 film “After Hours.” For the first two thirds, this film is a punk rock bonanza as Scorsese’s camera flies around like a maniac and editor Thelma Schoonmaker gives shape to the chaos.
But as the movie goes on, rock and roll retreats back to the blues. This is foreshadowed in an early scene where the firm pays a woman working in their office $10,000 to shave her head to pay for breast implants. At first she’s in on it; even the women in the office are just like the boys. But as her blonde hair falls in crooked chunks to the floor, there are cracks in her oblivious smile. The rumble of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” slows down, as does the film. When the movie takes a breather, we don’t see men; we see deranged children, we see monsters. We are far away from Henry Hill gliding through the Copacabana. There’s little romance here. Scorsese’s films have dealt with themes like guilt, masculinity, identity amongst a specific group and remorse. Belfort has no remorse. He doesn’t care that the FBI (personified by the always excellent Kyle Chandler) and the SEC are circling him like sharks. Not since “Raging Bull” has one of Scorsese’s protagonists been so monstrous. So Scorsese gets to focus on something that he’s dealt with in his own life but never to this degree on film: addiction.
Jordan and Donnie refuse to be sober, no matter the situation or consequences. This is demonstrated when they dig out some “Lemmons,” ultra-concentrated Quaaludes that rob the user of all motor skills, showcased in an insane, screamingly funny scene allowing DiCaprio to unleash his inner Charlie Chaplin. The film becomes exhausting and darker in tone because we are seeing everything from Jordan Belfort’s perspective. Consuming copious toxins wears you down. The film is still hilarious, but the laugh have a chaser of horror and disgust to go along with them. It’s hard not to think of someone like Jake La Motta, especially when looking at the deterioration of his marriage.
In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort doesn’t get wacked, or gain 40 pounds or go into hiding. Neither do his cohorts. In 1983’s “The King of Comedy,” Scorsese showed an audience lauding a man who committed atrocities to become a celebrity. Jordan Belfort and countless others on Wall Street did the same. When we get to that quietly devastating final shot, as a cycle of adulation continues, “Wolf of Wall Street” cements itself as one of the director’s most uncompromising and dangerous films. It’s an epic farce on the surface, but underneath, this bull is still raging.