Jordan Belfort had an innocence, a time in his life when he wasn’t corrupt or intoxicated with chemicals or the ultimate high that was his absurdly decadent life. We know this because the establishing scenes of Martin Scorsese’s gutsy new film show Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, on his first day of being a Wall Street trader. Belfort clearly has a desire for the Good Life but he comes across as clumsy, overly eager and in over his head on his first day. His superior, Mark Hanna (played with a tidal wave of jocular gusto by Matthew McConaughey) recognizes this. Hanna takes Belfort to lunch alongside rich fat cats and tells him the chemical and moral compromises he must make to succeed his business.
Belfort’s wide-eyed naiveté is soon replaced by a cocaine-fueled, deception-based practice of selling bad stocks to unsuspecting clients. Once Belfort’s start-up business becomes an empire and his co-workers transform into sharks with as much bite as he possesses, they take on bigger targets, becoming white collar criminals and out-of-control party animals.
While Gordon Gekko is referenced, the comparisons the film draws isn’t Wall Street but Tom Wolfe’s wild, satiric novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (whose “Masters of the Universe” are mentioned) and Scorsese’s Casino, which also showed the steep downside to selling your soul for profit. Catholic themes are present in all of Scorsese’s films and here, we are again on a moral chessboard, watching the players succeed or fail at desperately maintaining a lifestyle right out of Caligula. There’s no time for guilt, marriage or sobriety when everyday holds new and improved practices of debauchery. Some of this is awfully funny, but much of it is appropriately shocking and Scorsese would never fashion an empty celebration of these monsters.
Like its protagonist, the movie doesn’t know when to quit. Yet, the film had me so firmly in its grasp, I would have stayed for another hour. Rip-snorting, gleefully vulgar but not without a moral compass, Scorsese is back in Crime Doesn’t Pay territory and he’s made quite the cautionary tale. Three hours fly by as we witness the rise and spectacular wipeout of a corporation whose greatest output was reckless excess.
These men (and a few of the women in their company) are scum but you won’t be able to take your eyes off of them (the brilliant final scene make a visual reference to this). For all the debauchery and macho posturing, what will stay with you are moments of confrontation that play like perfect mini-movies. McConaughey’s one scene is a knockout and so are the quieter sequences that give Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner and Jean Dujarden time to develop outstanding supporting characters. DiCaprio’s performance matches the film- fearless, over the top and willing to do anything to entertain. He and co-star Jonah Hill, who’s become an impressive character actor, favorably evoke memories of DeNiro and Pesci in their prime.
The scene involving the Lemon Quaalude is just one of the tear-the-house-down set pieces on hand. DiCaprio’s “telephone terrorist” speech intends to work the room and even had me nearly stomping my feet.
So foul, disgusting and offensive, it will be too much for many. That’s the point, of course. Much of this feels like the loudest, sleaziest carnival ride you ever survived. Then, like any high that wears off, we feel the rush of reality and consequences in store as hard as the characters do. Scorsese’s depiction of sin’s ultimate price shows that, at 71 years old, he can still shock, captivate and mightily entertain us. He may be a greater con artist than Belfort: how else do you explain a filmmaker who somehow got a major American studio to fund a three-hour, $100 million dollar, sexually explicit movie that opened on Christmas Day?
Score: **** (1-5 Star Scale)