After an army of bleak dramas and corny tear-jerkers infecting the awards season, rides in on a rocket sled. There's simply never a dull moment in Belfort's real-life meteoric rise and descent into chaos, so that the lengthy run time never becomes a factor. DiCaprio wears his good guy image only temporarily as Belfort, an upstart Wall Street rookie looking to make his bones in an honest way, until he learns fairly quickly there's no such thing. Working at one of the most respected brokerage firms in the world, he's introduced to the daily insanity by his boss, a chest-thumping, coke-snorting guru played with scene-stealing hilarity by Matthew McConaughey. He teaches young padewan Belfort that in order to survive the Wall Street zoo, you need to do two things: jerk off constantly and snort enough blow "to sedate Manhattan". But he also learns something else: that this isn't a business where the client is always right. The client's just a mook; a sheep ready to be fleeced to the benefit of the broker. Customer satisfaction does not have its privileges.
As terrible as we know this advice to be, there's a twisted logic to it that drives every ridiculous thing that occurs afterwards. We're talking about people who live in the eye blink of time, where a fraction of a second can mean thousands if not millions of dollars. Of course they're going to look for that same instant gratification anywhere, and from anyone, they can get it from. Belfort learns a lesson early on about the volatility of the market on his very first day, during the epic crash of 1987, and in an effort to make a living and keep supporting his loyal wife (Cristin Milioti); he begins trading at a rinky dink firm shoveling penny stocks on working stiffs. "Garbage men and postmen. There's always postmen" the head of the firm (Spike Jonze) says. The sales are small but the commissions are huge, and soon Belfort is rolling in dough and gathering up his own crew of stiffs to start their own shop.
But it's not until he gets that first hit off the ol' crack pipe that Belfort's world goes bananas, provided by his right-hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), an extremely Jewish mattress salesman who drops everything to get a taste of the high life. "High" being the operative word as the two rail cocaine out of hookers' orifices like it was going out of style, and that's just the least of their indulgences. Okay, maybe the midget tossing is the least. Belfort cheats on his wife with the sexy "Duchess" Naomi (Margot Robbie) before dropping her altogether; taunts the FBI officials sniffing around his financial empire; buys literally everything in sight while robbing America blind. Look up crony capitalism in the dictionary and you'll find Jordan Belfort's smirking mug.
Scorsese recounts this sordid tale in the same rat-a-tat-tat style of Goodfellas, structuring it in essentially the same manner to the point where one can easily tell which phase of Belfort's downfall we're in. Like Henry Hill from that classic mob flick, Belfort is a guy we know is awful but we love him anyway, and as he reveals his screwed up thoughts over extensive voice-over we root for him to get away with it. There aren't many redeeming qualities for a guy like Belfort but Scorsese, screenwriter Terence Winter, and DiCaprio find just enough to make us like him. Perhaps it's our realization that Belfort isn't really a bad guy in the shark tank he exists in 24 hours a day; he's just a by-product of the criminal nature of a corrupt capitalist system. In that sense, The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't aim to impart some new wisdom about dangerous excess, and its fall-from-grace storyline begins to take a familiar shape once the action starts to wind down.
DiCaprio follows up The Great Gatsby as another character of overabundant riches, delivering a manic and wildly unhinged performance that makes last year's villainous turn in Django Unchained seem tame. DiCaprio's proven he can make us laugh before, but physical humor is something we've seen much less of. Here he gets to put all of his comedic gifts on display, especially in one epic scene where Belfort downs a rack of expired Quaaludes, which fail to kick in so he devours more, only to lose all sense of body control at the absolute worst time possible, finding what he calls the "cerebral palsy phase" in a bit that is destined to be an classic. It's just one of many such moments thanks to a supporting cast that is terrific all around.
The Wolf of Wall Street is the ballsiest movie Scorsese's ever, and proves he hasn't even begun to lose his edge.