In some respects, it’s hard to nail down exactly what The Wolf of Wall Street is. To compare it to other films in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre is one approach; another could argue that it’s the fullest realization of Tucker Max’s fever dreams that anybody could ever put to film. It’s equal parts breathtaking, vulgar, erotic, misogynistic, crass, brilliant, garish, untamed, undisciplined, impeccably made, morally reprehensible, thematically perfect, depressing, euphoric, loud, dark, hallucinatory, hilarious. All of those things exist, in any of the film’s 179 minutes, in endless tension with one another, shots and aesthetic styles and performances and soundtrack turning into something both cacophonous and totally appropriate. This is delirious filmmaking, especially for a director who’s been around as long as Martin Scorsese, filmmaking that’d normally come from a much fresher, hungrier eye. And it’s easily one of the best movies of 2013, as well as maybe the best made about the endless pit of avarice that is billion-dollar finance.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a real person, a fact that’s often hard to reconcile as The Wolf of Wall Street unfolds. Like so many Scorsese protagonists (the word “heroes” will never be a poorer fit than it is here), Belfort wants to make it rich, to claim that piece of the American Dream that he sees as his birthright. The difference is that from the minute he appears onscreen as a fresh-faced college graduate on the bus to Wall Street, Belfort is already a shark, a Machiavelli lacking only the means. He’s there to learn the ropes (via a too-brief Matthew McConaughey appearance), learn the system, and before long, learn how to hustle it to his advantage. One of the many casualties of the 1987 market crash, Belfort ultimately makes his fortune not through conventional or honest channels, but through joining up with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) to sell penny stocks to poor, working-class saps looking to play the market within their means. Less than a decade later Belfort is knocking on $50 million a year just for himself, working his way through women and drugs and helicopters and yachts faster than he can control, all while expanding his fake empire into the blue-chip world.
That Belfort eventually runs afoul of the law is inevitable. An enterprising federal agent (Kyle Chandler, whose tete-a-tete with DiCaprio might be the film’s most sublime sequence) goes after Belfort, who knows what he’s doing is illegal and hardly cares. But that’s not the end, or really even the story, of The Wolf of Wall Street. The story is like The Hangover if the bender never ended, an endless carnival of abuses of every conceivable variety that after a while becomes deafening. But this is Scorsese’s point. Here the filmmaker speaks the language of the sickeningly well-off, reveling in their addled teenage dreams and finding the savage comedy in men behaving very, very badly. To condemn the film for this isn’t necessarily wrong; by nature this is irresponsible filmmaking at best, a three-hour festival of white male privilege gone horribly awry at worst.
But Scorsese has more to say about the bacchanal than the film initially lets on. While the first two thirds of the film offer some of Hollywood’s most truly shocking images in years (this may be among the hardest Rs this critic has ever seen), the culmination of the anarchy is what’s truly stunning. A sequence involving high-potency Quaaludes, a Lamborghini, cocktail shrimp and a corded telephone is both hilarious and horrifying, never being one more than the other, a reminder that these self-fashioned gods are all painfully mortal. And by the time the comedown ultimately rolls around, appearing in ways you might not expect, you’re left to wonder who’s most at fault. There’s no doubt that Belfort and his merry band of sociopaths are to blame, but what about the people who watch him with rapt attention, or neglect to give a tenth of their admiration and support to the people working to stop his kind? Scorsese has no answers for us, instead opting to drown us in the ecstasy until the agony becomes aggressively apparent.
His methods, too, work in favor of the film. Is The Wolf of Wall Street probably too long? Sure. But like the opening sequence of this year’s Spring Breakers, another brilliant film that trafficked heavily in the milieu of its subjects, the riot of styles only helps capture the narcissistic madness at hand. Freeze frames, time jumps, memory-manipulated flashbacks and the frequent destruction of the fourth wall are but a handful of tricks the film has up its impeccably tailored sleeves, all in service of a movie that captures a decade under the influence with infectious verve. And at the center of it all is DiCaprio, delivering career-best work as a guy who isn’t even too big to fall so much as one who could care less if and when he does. He swaggers, preens, collapses in on himself and rises anew, and all the while plays the consummate seducer, a man who innately understands the American citizen and uses those powers for evil. Even in a film so hilarious as this one, it can’t be forgotten that Jordan Belfort made it in America, a fact that might be the biggest punchline of them all.