It is a well-known fact that the 1980s was a decade of excess and debauchery for Wall Street. For traders, brokers, and bankers who were making money hand over foot, the question wasn’t how much money they would spend-the question was how they would possibly spend all of it. Set in the late ’80s and early ’90s, The Wolf of Wall Street captures the essence of the era in every measurable way-sex, drugs, and alcohol, it’s all there. Pound for pound, the film has more cocaine than Scarface, and inch for inch, more skin than your average porn flick. In the first hour, the main character’s father, upon seeing the corporate expenses on prostitutes and alcohol, sums up most of the movie when he says, “Crazy? This is obscene!” But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Based on a true story, the film chronicles the life of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a stockbroker turned con man, as he works his way up the Wall Street pecking order. When he starts at the firm of Jon Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), he is a married man, not interested in drinking with his boss at lunch and astounded that he is doing a bump of coke in the middle of a crowded dining room. Before long, he is sucked into the high-rolling lifestyle, which grinds to a halt when the market crashes on Black Monday, just months after he started at Hanna’s firm. Throughout the rest of the movie, Belfort works to establish his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, and teach others his aggressive sales techniques, which prove to be quite profitable-but mostly illegal. At the beginning of the movie, Belfort (as narrator) declares, “My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”
DiCaprio does a spectacular job of channeling the passionate and aggressive, yet volatile and impetuous, temperament of Jordan Belfort in his performance. The pinnacle of this is perhaps one scene in which Belfort, high from an overdose of Quaaludes (a sedative turned recreational drug), loses most of his motor functions and crawls to his car from inside of a country club and then drives home.
One of the striking aspects of the movie-and an interesting choice on the part of director Martin Scorsese-is the decision to break the fourth wall. During parts of the movie, Belfort narrates what is happening on screen, provides background on himself and his life, or simply turns to the audience and explains a financial concept. What makes this work is the fact that Belfort is the consummate salesman-throughout the movie, he is almost always selling something, whether it is a stock or, in an attempt to teach a lesson, a plain pen. In breaking the fourth wall, Belfort is successful in making the most important sales pitch of all-he sells the audience himself and his story.
Starring next to DiCaprio, Jonah Hill does an excellent job providing comic relief as Belfort’s first partner, Donnie Azoff. He is a goofball character who is good enough at what he does, but often lets his passions, drug addictions, and ego get in the way of good business. At one point, in response to legal action being taken against the company, Azoff urinates on the subpoenas in middle of the office to the cheers of his coworkers. Without a doubt, Hill was the right choice to capture the crudeness of the humor and the office space, and he plays the role with incredible ease.
At the end of the film, there is a sense that the audience is suppose to leave having learned a lesson-that Belfort was a man of no morals, that the lifestyle he lived was vacant and meaningless, and that there is justice in the world. By the end of the 179-minute film, though, this lesson seems lost in the glamour that Belfort’s money could-and did-buy.