Insane. That's a very short summary of Martin Scorsese's epic, bewildering and bombastic tale of the excesses of self-made multi-millionaire Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street. Over and over again, the viewer pauses to reassess after seeing one more outrageous event or set piece or crazy bit of dialogue. As it comments on excess, the film itself is excessive, and it is quite the ride.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio in a role to which he totally commits) is the son of accountants, who gets a job in a traditional brokerage house, and promptly loses that job after the crash of 1987. He takes a position pushing penny stocks to make ends meet, and discovers that the laxer rules allow him to make an exceptionally good living, as long as he doesn't mind selling very questionable stocks to people who might not necessarily be able to afford to lose their investment.
Soon, he and friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) start their own firm, and use a script designed by Belfort to help their collection of low class associates sell sell sell. In short order, he and his band of misfits are fabulously wealthy, and leaning ever more into the world of illegality. Shell accounts, proxy buyers, shady IPOs; Belfort will do anything to make money. He'll also do anything for a good time, just about. An endless parade (literally a parade at times) of strippers, prostitutes, drugs and alcohol pass the time, along with a side of adultery and dwarf tossing, and his behavior becomes more and more erratic.
Scorsese doesn't shy away from the more sordid aspects of Belfort's life. Drug use, sex and nudity abound. And more than just the standard R rating material, what is disturbing is the casual disregard that Belfort, Azoff and their inner circle have for normal morality, other people, or anything that resembles a civilizational rule. The glee and zeal with which these people pop pills, screw around, smuggle money, and generally debauch themselves is astounding. Of course, this is classic hubris, and it's asking for a nemesis, which comes in the form of Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) of the FBI. He makes it his mission to bring Belfort down.
There is quite a bit of humor in The Wolf of Wall Street. Terence Winter's script sets up a lot of gonzo situations and juxtapositions, but much of the film is improvised, and this crackling dialogue often provides a moment or two of respite from the rushing river of moral turpitude. The conversations in the boardroom about the legal ins and outs of little people entertainment contracts, or the talk that Belfort and his father have about genital grooming trends, are real delights.
DiCaprio really goes all out as Belfort, going from sociopathic motivational speeches, to drug addled crawling on all fours, to honestly touching moments of personal connection. We know that Belfort is an amoral scoundrel, but DiCaprio plays him with such verve and charm that we can't help but hope, even if just a little, that he succeeds, and manages to outwit Denham and the FBI. The performances are exceptional across the board, with great turns by Hill, and Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Cristin Milioti as Belfort's long suffering first wife Teresa, Margot Robbie as his fancy new wife Naomi, and too many more to name. (Though Joanna Lumley was perhaps a personal favorite.) None of these feel like gimmick casting, and all fold seamlessly into the narrative.
And technically, the film is brilliant. There are dolly shots across rooms crowded with desks and people, POV drug snorting shots, and much more, all in the context of a subtly designed and executed film. Scorsese is working here with joy and abandon, clearly relishing the boundary pushing and the sheer creative exuberance of it all. This is a very, very good film, though definitely not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. It pulls very few punches in its display of the debauchery of the time and place, but it is nevertheless fascinating to watch it all unfold. Highly recommended.