The Wolf of Wall Street comes shackled with impossibly high expectations.
It’s the latest film from Martin Scorsese (arguably this country’s greatest living director), features two of the era’s most notable leading men (Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey) and runs three hours (Hollywood proof that this is “important,” people).
It also happens to be of the cultural moment, based on Jordan Belfort’s bestselling memoir about his days as a young, ruthless Wall Street warlord. As the country continues to struggle its way out of the 2008 financial collapse, there’s still interest in how it all might have gone down.
So it’s a relief and a pleasant surprise that Wall Street, despite some missteps and the need for an editor, mostly manages to live up to the interest generated by its kinetic trailers and the heavy hand of hype. While there are obvious similarities to such previous Scorsese films as Goodfellas and Casino, this freewheeling and often ferociously funny film about a bunch of goofballs — pumped up on coke, crooked capitalism, testosterone and entitlement — stands on its own as one of the year’s most entertaining films.
At the film’s start, working-class Belfort (DiCaprio) is at his first menial Wall Street job, being treated like dirt by his supervisor but getting some sage — and hilarious — advice on how to survive in this shark tank by a co-worker (McConaughey in a far-too-brief cameo). But the year is 1987, and the firm is taken down by that year’s financial crisis. Belfort is back to square one.
That’s when he stumbles across a low-rent brokerage house dealing in penny stocks which, according to the film at least, were often sold by the unscrupulous to working-class Joes looking to get rich quick. Belfort decides to flip the script by trying to sell penny stocks to his old blue-chip customers. If Belfort’s clients’ fortunes don’t improve, his certainly do — so much so that he starts his own firm. His success is so fast and furious that the business press dubs him “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
His life turns into a nonstop party, and no one parties harder than his business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Their slow-motion brawl while whacked out on quaaludes is going to be one of those scenes that filmgoers will be talking about well into the spring.
Of course, what goes up must come down, and helping along with that is federal agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), who’s looking for just the right opportunity to bust Belfort’s entire operation.
While the general arc of the story is no shock, how Scorsese and writer Terence Winter ( The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) tell it — breaking the fourth wall, a near-constant electric sense of movement — keeps it fresh. And DiCaprio, who couldn’t fill the shoes of The Great Gatsby, gives a refreshingly loose-limbed, compelling performance that ranks as one of his best.
Yes, there are scenes that go on too long (Scorsese’s original cut ran four hours, so it could have been worse). Yes, Scorsese has trod this territory — young men gone impossibly bad — before.
But when it’s done this well, there’s little reason to complain.