"The year I turned 26, I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week", snarls Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort. Marty Scorsese has discovered a mighty jet-black sense of humour whilst directing 'The Wolf Of Wall Street'. Over three raucous hours, he mangles and perverts the American Dream with a rise and fall arc that is both utterly hilarious and disheartening. This is the spiritual successor to 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino' - a brash and outrageous tale of sex, drugs, and penny stocks.
Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) is a young whippersnapper on 1970s Wall Street cutting his teeth at a stock-brokerage with a brilliantly eccentric mentor in Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Hanna is a trader who quite literally beats his chest and hums the melody of macho-capitalism, initiating an impressionable Belfort into the virtues of cocaine and hookers.
However, Black Monday wipes Belfort’s job away and lands him in a boiler room garage operation for dicey stocks. Jordan’s undeniable charm and charisma generates huge success by bullying sales out of the most vulnerable people in society. His eyes are trained on the bigger prize of gullible, high net worth individuals. In a stroke of genius, Belfort creates a marketing trick that rebrands the stock-brokerage to a position of trust - Stratton Oakmont. Assembling a bunch of low-life grafters with the same lust for money and gift of the gab, Belfort establishes and orchestrates the rapid rise of his empire.
Let’s be unequivocal here – this is Leonardo DiCaprio’s greatest performance yet, in a career that probably already indicates he is the greatest actor of his generation. The portrayal of Belfort is pitched with electric energy throughout. Leo depicts the perfect character study of this man’s myopic ambition to be rich. Money is the opiate that makes Belfort invincible and inspires limitless selfishness. From drug-induced frenzy to drug-induced palsy, from silver-tongued orator to pitiful husband, DiCaprio is owed an Oscar for this anti-hero interpretation.
Jordan Belfort’s functional depravity relies on a network of cronies who help cover his tracks in spectacular fashion. Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) is Belfort’s second-in-command. Hill riffs superbly in the role, knowing that Donnie’s actions are the benchmark of debauchery that Stratton Oakmont aspires to. Rob Reiner is terrific as Belfort’s father, endeavouring to impart some paternal morality into the jungle.
The rest of Belfort’s Stratton team dazzle as the cowboys with Quotrons. P.J Byrne, Kenneth Choi and Jon Berthal make great white collar wise guys. Belfort characterises them as Wall Street bottom feed - the uneducated new kids on the block undercutting the big league fat cats. They are each identifiable and likeable underdogs, yet they are hideously cruel and despicable bordering on sociopathic. If there is something conceivably obscene to do, it will be affordable and achievable - cue hooker orgies on private planes and a breath-taking amount of coke.
There are plenty of iconic scenes for acting students to dote on. It is very clear 'Wall Street'’s Gordon Gecko rests in the back of Jordan Belfort’s mind during his fiery daily sermons to his sales team. "There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and I choose rich every time". DiCaprio adds a little bit of Steve Ballmer hysteria as he bellows to his congregation of rapturous foaming traders. Screenwriter Terrence Winter ('Boardwalk Empire', 'The Sopranos') produces a script encrusted with plenty of quotables that will be bandied about from the Square Mile to Canary Wharf for years to come.
Directorially, there is plenty to feast on. In fact, one Quaaludes-chugging scene is practically a film within a film, bleakly and comically demonstrating the utter absurdity of Belfort’s world without real reprimand or consequences. Scorsese’s treatment of the subject matter tows the perfect line between castigation and celebration of Belfort’s vacuous and flashy thrill-seeking. It is a deliberate device that Belfort avoids in-depth explanations about the financial wizardry that allowed him to siphon millions of dollars from customers. The audience should only care about the bottom line - it wasn’t legal and made several million dollars in a couple of hours. Stylistically, Scorsese seems to be enjoying the creative licence, employing soaring cams, whip pans, freeze frames and a surprising amount of CGI that keeps a frenetic rhythm pulsing and gurning throughout.
Leo must still be praising that fateful day 7 years ago when he fended off Brad Pitt for the rights to shoot 'The Wolf Of Wall Street'. A firecracker of a film, ignited by Scorsese’s gleefully dark humour and its relevance today. Understandably, the level of testosterone-fuelled sleaze will repel a few viewers, but just as Belfort warns the FBI, there is worse out there, referencing the major banks and the sub-prime mortgage market responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. For each scene that seems to glorify and fetishize the antics, there is a counterweight sense of warning in the bigger picture. Scorsese amusingly caps this point with a cameo from the real Jordan Belfort, free today to revel in the inevitable tsunami of publicity from this film.
'The Wolf Of Wall Street' is out now in UK cinemas, through Universal Pictures.