The Wolf of Wall Street is debauchery with a studio budget.  It meanders, slinks and plows through its 3-hour runtime like a Wall Street lackey on a cocaine bender.  This is lavish, gutsy filmmaking from the legend Martin Scorsese.  At 71-years old, Scorsese isn’t slowing his roll and making ponderous prestige pictures for cheap awards.  He attacks Wall Street with the vigor of a young filmmaker looking to make a splash.  It’s not the best movie he’s ever made but you’d be hard pressed to find another in his catalogue with this much energy.

The Wolf is a sprawling epic.  The film follows Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a young, starry-eyed stock broker.  He learns quickly that in mid-80’s New York City you need to talk faster than the next guy.  Trust isn’t earned; it’s forced upon your clients.  That 1% commission may not sound like much but on a $50,000 transaction? That’s a nice week’s work.  The hustle of the market quickly turns the fresh-faced Belfort into a hooker, drug and money obsessed war monger.

wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903Although Belfort’s rise is swift the reality of the late-80’s crushes his early momentum.  October 19th, 1987 – also known as Black Monday – the market dropped 500 points effectively closing many of the smaller brokerages on the street (including Belfort’s employer.)  Unemployed and desperate for action Belfort accepts a position in a seedy strip mall on Long Island selling pink sheet penny stocks.  Used to the quick gain action of the street this seems like rock bottom until Belfort discovers a loophole.  If he can sell people on these (mostly garbage) companies he receives a 50% commission on every transaction (up slightly from the 1% he was making on the street.)

Belfort’s knack for words and slight disdain for the truth quickly turns him into the pink sheet all-star.  Soon, he’s pulling in $70,000/month in commission selling pure unadulterated bullshit.  After meeting a bizarre but driven furniture salesman named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) – who offers to partner up – they jump out Kendall Jenner puckers up to posted to his Instagram late Friday night (August 1) in Ibiza, Spain. on their own.  Renting a garage and pulling in some low-level scumbags off the street Belfort and Azoff quickly turn the pink sheet game into a full-scale brokerage.  To legitimize themselves they begin selling wealthy people on these investments as well as branding the brokerage with a lion’s head and fancy title (Stratton Oakmont.)  Soon Belfort is employing hundreds of these scumbags, throwing lavish weekly parties and taking the street by storm.

It’s at this point that The Wolf of Wall Street earns its title.  You see, Belfort and his lackeys were getting rich selling garbage to garbage men so you won’t be shocked to learn that some of their other business dealings weren’t exactly “above board.”  Belfort became known as a sort of “reverse Robin Hood” – stealing from the rich to give to himself.  To combat this he began using his power as a stellar salesmen to dangerously inflate potential new IPO’s.  The largest (and most notorious) was that of Steve Madden – women’s shoe mogul.  When Madden went public –  with the help of Stratton Oakmont – it was one of the largest IPO’s of its day.  It continued to feed the appetites of these money-hungry wolves – even if it was built on an invisible foundation.

And Scorsese never skimps on displaying the excess of that appetite.  His vision of Wall Street and Belfort make Gordon Gecko look like Gandhi.  As Stratton Oakmont continued to make money the parties became grander.  Executives just sat around all day planning their next insane stunt.  In one particular (insanely hilarious and over-the-top) scene the Board of Directors sit around and very sternly discuss how they are going to hire midgets, dress them in velcro suits and throw them at a target for money.  It’s these activities (usually sandwiched between hookers, cocaine, adultery…and more hookers) that made up Stratton Oakmont’s daily schedule.

It’s all completely ridiculous and wildly entertaining.  Scorsese – working with master cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto – shoot this debauchery and the incredible sets with a keen visual eye.  Nothing is misplaced and Scorsese (never a master of subtlety) damns the lifestyle on display.  It’s also his fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio – and it may be his career defining role.  They’ve never been better together and it’s nice to see DiCaprio in something as broad and comedic as this.  He showed he was game in last year’s Django Unchained but here he really lets the wheels come off.  It’s possible that he was pushed to these heights by his co-conspirator Jonah Hill (in another career defining role as Azoff.)  Sporting some wildly bad teeth and ridiculous 90’s pastel attire – Hill makes Azoff into a world class philanderer.  His comedic background also pushes many of the other classically-trained actors to weird, unexpected places.

Scorsese worked with a whip-smart but largely shapeless script from veteran Soprano’s writer Terence Winter and the film largely reflects that.  We get episodes of Belfort’s life that play out individually but often have little relationship to what came before.  DiCaprio’s voiceover helps bridge those gaps. It”s classic Scorsese and works as the films twisted, delusional conscience.  I’m not sure Scorsese ever fully delivers the damning satire he desires but it’s not for lack of trying.

There is some sweet irony that The Wolf of Wall Street is being released on Christmas day.  It’s a day of celebration, family and reflection.  To couple that with the most outrageous, hysterical, disgusting movie of the year is a wonderfully distasteful joke. The Wolf may not be the best movie of the year, but I defy you to see another that will be more talked about.

Rating: Capture

The Wolf of Wall Street Opens Christmas Day in Theaters Everywhere