With The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Jordan Belfort's memoir, the legendary director has made his most playfully rambunctious and funniest film ever. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan, an ambitious stockbroker who learns all too well from his coke-snorting mentor (Matthew McConaughey) that the trick to the business is making your own money from commissions -- the customers don't matter.
Jordan sets off on his own hawking penny stocks, and quickly figures out that -- because the commission rate is so much higher on them -- he can quickly amass a personal fortune by convincing millionaires to invest in these probably worthless companies. Setting his plan in motion, Jordan puts together a loyal if dim-witted team of salesmen -- including his eventual second-in-command Donnie (a skeevy Jonah Hill) -- teaches them his tenacious, never-take-no-for-an-answer verbal patter, and eventually becomes so successful that Forbes magazine writes an article about him that gives the film its title.
Of course, all of this obscene wealth comes at a price. Jordan, who starts out as a classic nice guy who wants to do right by his wife, quickly drops her for a model whom he later marries. He develops a seemingly insatiable appetite for drugs, hookers, and extravagant displays of conspicuous consumption. If he doesn't implode from debauchery first, he might get taken down by FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), a straight arrow who has made it his mission to uncover the illegality at the center of Jordan's financial empire.
Scorsese maintains a nearly relentless sense of momentum for the film's just shy of three-hour running time, which is all the more impressive because Terence Winter's script is very talky: The movie has numerous monologues and a handful of epic verbal confrontations -- none better than when Jordan and Denham have their first face-to-face meeting. Thankfully, the words are as seductive as the images, and Scorsese lets you feel the buzz that Jordan experiences as he ingests more and more substances and throws around increasing amounts of cash.
With its rise-and-fall tale of a man who spins out of control on drugs, wealth, and power, it's tempting to think of Wolf as a revisit of Goodfellas. However, there's a fundamental difference in Scorsese's feelings about his two lead characters that explains why they are very distinct movies. As ridiculous as Henry and his cohorts got, there was a lethalness to them that the director feared. Their actions were too somber to joke about -- as Joe Pesci's character famously asked, what was so funny about them?
However, Jordan Belfort is the kind of slick corporate shark that Marty has spent decades trying to squeeze money out of in order to make movies, and he uses this opportunity to unload all of his contempt at these modern masters of the universe. For the first time, it feels like he has genuine disdain for his main character, and this frees him to humiliate Jordan in endlessly entertaining ways. Religion has always been central to Scorsese's work and iconography, and with Wolf he gets to unleash some Old Testament wrath on a sinner who deserves everything the Almighty can summon.
No sequence makes that more clear than when Jordan, after taking too many powerful quaaludes, has a physical breakdown and must drive back home while suffering seizures. DiCaprio, as he does throughout the movie, throws himself into this scene with the commitment of a silent-era comic. It's hard to think of another A-list leading man so willing to make himself look ridiculous, and working with someone he trusts as much as Scorsese only inspires him to push even further. It's an outrageously funny sequence, one that few actor/director combinations would have the talent to execute this well.
But don't be misled into thinking that Wolf is just modern slapstick. The movie is unafraid to let people talk for extended stretches of time, yet it almost never feels improvised; the scenes are structured as tightly as Jordan's script to potential clients. That fact comes through in a showpiece scene late in the picture when Jordan must address his frenetic employees and tell them he's stepping down as the head of the company. The scene pivots, though, as he works up yet another head of steam and you realize he's so far gone from the person he was at the beginning of the film that he now buys his own line of crap.
That's the moment that exposes the movie's point -- America itself is so drunk on its own excesses and drive for success that it has absolutely lost its way. The Wolf of Wall Street is a hilarious, angry, and scathing indictment of greed. It's so funny you might not notice how deep it cuts.