Martin Scorsese’s new movie hits the ground running with a montage of dwarf tossing, sex grappling and extreme drug behavior of a sort I don’t believe I’ve ever seen on screen before. Then it gets really crazy. Frantically edited down from four hours to three, and now arriving at the last moment for Oscar consideration, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is hilarious and appalling and, by the end, a little exhausting. Scorsese shows us bad men doing very bad things — ruining lives, treating women like dirt — and declines to take a moral stand about what we’re seeing. And with Leonardo DiCaprio giving an explosive performance at the center of the film — sometimes in long, rabble-rousing orations — it’s hard not to get caught up in these people’s demented exuberance.
The story is true-life, drawn from a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a stock market shark of unapologetically skeezy inclinations and prodigious appetites. We meet Belfort (DiCaprio) arriving on Wall Street in 1987, and being quickly wised up by a top broker named Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, taking total possession of the movie in a very brief appearance). The dirty secret of stock-trading, Hanna tells Belfort, is that while the clients are only getting rich on paper, the brokers are getting cash-rich on commissions. He counsels taking as much cocaine as possible.
Before Belfort can put this advice to use, though, the Black Monday stock market crash wipes out his job. He’s reduced to working at a grubby suburban “boiler room” that specializes in pumping and dumping penny stocks to the financial detriment of workaday suckers reeled in by visions of quick riches. Belfort is astonished to learn that, while the standard Wall Street broker’s commission is 10 percent, in the penny-stock market, it’s five times that. He quickly takes over this piddly operation and turns it into a major company called Stratton Oakmont. Before long he’s wearing $2,000 suits and putting $26,000 dinners on his credit card. Money, Belfort says, “makes you a better person.” (In real life, Belfort was ultimately jailed for inflicting $200 million dollars’ worth of damage on his clients.)
There’s barely a dull scene in the movie. Belfort acquires a henchman, a brash weasel named Donny Azoff (Jonah Hill in one of his best performances), and moves his burgeoning enterprise into swank new offices. Here we witness uproarious staff parties with call girls servicing the cheering brokers right at their desks. Emulating the boss, everyone is cranked up on booze and drugs. There’s a gaudy beach house bacchanal and a wild orgy on an airplane (the movie is heavy with full-frontal nudity, almost exclusively female). None of the carousing scummers can imagine the good times will ever end.
But after Forbes magazine slams Belfort as “The Wolf of Wall Street’ (he welcomes the recognition), a straight-arrow FBI agent named Denham (Kyle Chandler) begins taking an interest in Stratton’s dodgy doings. By this point, Belfort is roaring out of control. Despite the blizzard of cocaine that blows through the movie, his drug of choice is methaqualone, and there’s a long, hysterically funny sequence, following massive Quaalude ingestion, in which he’s reduced to crawling from a restaurant out to his car as if he were swimming through a sea of glue. (“I went straight to the drool phase,” Belfort says in voice-over.) It’s borderline slapstick territory into which I don’t think DiCaprio has ever ventured before, and he’s surprisingly terrific.
Early critical reaction to the film has been understandably divided. In his classic “Goodfellas,” which this movie sometimes resembles, Scorsese grounded the fun in a clear-eyed acknowledgement of what monsters his mobsters really were. Here, he presents Belfort and his fellow shysters simply as raucous lowlifes, and he invites us to laugh along with them. There’s virtually no character development: Through all the episodes of unbounded debauchery, no one has second thoughts or regrets — everyone remains as heedless at the end as he was at the beginning. And apart from Cristin Milioti playing Belfort’s shabbily discarded first wife, and the sleek Margot Robbie as her trophy-babe successor, women in this picture are a tertiary concern. (Belfort offers one female employee $10,000 to allow her head to be shaved while her co-workers watch; she accepts because she wants the money to buy breast implants.)
But there’s so much to marvel at — not least the excitement of seeing a legendary director, at the age of 71, working close to the peak of his powers, his energy and technical invention still dazzling. (As is his facility with music — the picture is filled, counterintuitively, with rowdy R&B oldies by Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.) The story eventually stretches out to Geneva, where Belfort consorts with a slick banker named Saurel (Jean Dujardin, star of “The Artist”). There follows an elaborate maritime sequence that feels distinctly out of place, and from this point, the movie begins to falter. (You wonder how much better it might have been if Scorsese and his peerless editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, had had sufficient time to tighten it.) But “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an electrifying piece of work, and the actors are wonderful, especially DiCaprio and Hill, who go all out and sometimes well beyond. Whatever the movie’s flaws, it’s a great Rabelaisian entertainment whose grimy pleasures can’t be denied.