A New York stockbroker refuses to cooperate in a large securities fraud case involving corruption on Wall Street, the corporate banking world and mob infiltration.
Scorsese’s New York is prolific. The home of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, After Hours, Age of Innocence and Bringing Out The Dead. Then there’s Gangs of New York. And of course, the musical, New York, New York. Even Michael Jackson’s Bad video – also directed by Old Marty – is set in the city. But not Wall Street; Wall Street is perhaps the one area of New York that Scorsese has left unexplored. Despite this new untrod territory, The Wolf of Wall Street certainly feels familiar. It feels like home. It feels Scorsesian.
Jordan Belfour also has that aura. It may be reductive to call him another Travis Bickle (De Niro’s increasingly unhinged New York cabbie in Taxi Driver) or Henry Hill (Ray Liotta’s rising gangster in Goodfellas) but they’re not too far apart. They are each the king of their own world, the master of their own unique bubble with very little morals and twisted justifications, with a sense that they’re still right when their world starts to crumble around them. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” said Henry Hill. And the motivation is not all that different from Jordan Belfour’s, with a similar internal monologue to boot. They both want the power of riches.
Belfour begins as an intern stockbroker at L.F. Rothschild where he learns his trade from Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey – in a scene-stealing performance). When Goodfellas came out in 1990, it used the word “fuck” more frequently than any other film in history. The Wolf of Wall Street has now achieved that accolade for itself but it’s not as noticeable, perhaps because of the aggressive nature of this fast-moving environment. The brokers are encouraged to be “telephone terrorists”, for example, and on one occasion to rally the troops before trading the war cry is “Let’s fuck!” In fact, swearing is one of the tips given to Belfour by Hanna. Along with masturbation, cocaine and hookers. “How the fuck else would you be able to do this job?” he asks, incredulously. Belfour takes his advice but the firm soon goes under and he instead finds himself trading penny stocks in a car park. But he is more skilled, more informed, more confident at lying and manipulating than his new co-workers and, realizing an opportunity, he takes penny stocks to Wall Street.
He gathers a group of friends, including Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill with big white teeth and a pair of horn-rims with clear lenses to make himself “look more waspy”) and together they create Stratton Oakmont and it grows and grows. And as it expands, so does the excess. There’s crack-smoking, Quaalude overdoses, three levels of prostitutes, endless strippers, cocaine, money just thrown in the bin, a woman having her head shaved for $10,000 followed by a brass band and a stripper fight, a dwarf being thrown like a dart towards a target, misogyny, misogyny, misogyny—an excess of everything, really, except repercussions. And this is just the office. It’s a madhouse lubricated by cocaine, testosterone, and body fluids. It is mayhem. It is out of control. It is total debauchery. “It would be obscene in the normal world,” says Belfour. “But who the fuck wants to live there?!”
He gets richer and his assets grow; an estate, a mansion, a helicopter, a yacht, a new wife, a Swiss bank account, a rare collection of Quaaludes. And with it comes fraudulent stock sales and market launches and, eventually, inevitably, the FBI. But, of course, this is a man in a bubble. A man blinded by his own power. The sort of man who, after attempting to bribe the FBI agents, throws lobsters at them and then sprinkles $20 bills over their heads, shouting “Do you know what I call these? Fun tokens!” because they are poorer than him. But this is Jordan Belfour, a man whose modus operandi is to deal with problems by being rich.
There is never a doubt that this man is detestable and relishing in all the avarice that DiCaprio can muster, but you can see his charm. And it’s uncomfortable to watch. But it no more glamourises swindling stockbrokers than American Psycho glamourises psychopathic murder sex or Goodfellas glamourises being in the mob. It’s presented on screen without any ramifications but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to leave the cinema with aspirations to be a stockbroker, or a gangster, or a psychopathic sex murderer.
A lot of the discomfort comes from the fact that it’s a true story, based on the book by the real Jordan Belfour, but on the whole, the dialogue is riveting; you find yourself smiling at the wit, the monologues, the characterisations because it is just so well written. This is DiCaprio’s fifth film with Scorsese and it’s a relationship you hope continues. DiCaprio plays wealth with ease and has the right blend of charm to go with the inherent insidiousness.
Scorsese doesn’t do many comedies and the parts where the film falls down are when this goes a bit too far. Like when Jonah Hill seems allowed the room to adlib at little too much – bringing it more into the Apatow arena – but this is a minor point. Hill, along with Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley (yes, Joanna Lumley!) and Home & Away alumnus Margot Robbie could easily have been cast in a more serious Scorsese film with the same success. And then there is McConaughey; an actor who was once vying with DiCaprio to play the lead in Titanic.
“Nobody knows if a stock is gonna go up, down, sideways or in circles,” says Mark Hanna. “You know what a fugayzi is? “
“No, Fugazi. It’s a fake…” responds Jordan Belfour.
“Fugayzi, Fugaaazi, it’s a waaahzy, it’s a woozy, it’s a…,” he spirals an upward whistle from his pursed lips as he rotates his finger in the air. “…fairy dust.”
And then McConaughey thumps his chest slowly, sporadically emitting sounds from his mouth as he performs a tribal upper body dance fuelled by cocaine, alcohol and who knows what else. Then DiCaprio joins in. Humming and pounding their chests in unison. It’s a great scene. The framing, the performances, the dialogue, the action…it’s compelling. It is Martin Scorsese at his best.
It is his beating heart, as it were.