Published Dec 24, 2013In its opening moments, Martin Scorsese's comedy The Wolf of Wall Street — arguably only the third comedy he's ever made, after the early '80s one-two punch of The King of Comedy and After Hours — announces its levels of excessive debauchery. In a voice-over, Leonardo DiCaprio, as junk bond stock broker Jordan Belfort, catalogues a pharmacy's worth of drugs he takes daily: Quaaludes, cocaine, pot, booze, valium and plenty more, an excess that announces that The Wolf of Wall Street is more real-life Charlie Sheen than fictional Gordon Gekko.
In fact, it's real life Jordan Belfort, who did indeed rise to Wall Street prominence in the '80s and early '90s as a junk bond broker and founder of Stratton Oakmont before being convicted of securities fraud. And Belfort's story has been the inspiration for a film before, 2000's Vin Diesel starring Wall Street rip-off Boiler Room. But facts aren't as fun as the elevator to excess that Scorsese has in store.
In one of the most compelling performances, DiCaprio dives into the deep end as Belfort, rallying his Italian neighbourhood buddies to become salesman, even with zero understanding of the stock market. His energy powers entire roomfuls of bro-y chest thumping egotists for whom Gekko's mantra "greed is good" is too conservative and too slow. As his stock star begins to rise with his sense of self — "Their money is better off with me. I know how to spend it better anyway" sums up his philosophy — he ditches his first wife for a beer spokesmodel (Pan Am's Margot Robbie in a breakout role).
Jonah Hill is the other actor here who puts a giant stamp on The Wolf of Wall Street, as Belfort's nebbishy, awkward, greedy and amoral sidekick Donnie Azoff. Unlike recent acclaimed work — as Brad Pitt's sidekick in Moneyball and as his obnoxious self in both This Is the End and on the Roast of James Franco — in which he's played a toned-down version of "comedy" Jonah Hill (itself a slight variation on comedy Seth Rogen), here Hill demonstrates real acting chops and subtle skill as a character actor, and this role puts Hill on the radar as an actor with significant potential.
The film puts pedal to the metal from the outset, and in non-violent terms, this is Scorsese's most excessive and debauched film ever. The drug use — and its comedic consequences — is constant, as is the portrayal of Stratton Oakmont as the financial world's VIP room at a strip club. With DiCaprio in every scene, Scorsese effectively plays with perspective and expectation, contrasting Belfort's drug-addled impressions with harsh reality to great comic effect. For those who doubt DiCaprio's comic sense, a brilliant, extended scene involving way too many Quaaludes and an attempt to get to his Lamborghini is a tour-de-force of physical comedy.
Interestingly, The Wolf of Wall Street shares much in common with another seasonal comedy of greed and excess in David O, Russell's American Hustle. Big difference: one is made by a guy who loves Martin Scorsese; the other is made by a guy who is Martin Scorsese. The ease and confidence with which The Wolf of Wall Street is handled clearly demonstrates the difference.