In THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Martin Scorsese doesn't pretend to be morally outraged at the excess and depravity of his film's subjects. He's not. We're well past that stage now. What good would moral outrage do? You may as well be angry at a cheetah chasing down a gazelle. The cheetah's just doing what it does. And the predators of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET are all too real, and beyond any kind of moral judgment that the best you can hope for is to document each disgusting act, and hope something sticks. Even if you try to inject some kind of judgment, it would fall upon deaf ears. No, if there's a moral to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, it's simply this: you don't have to be a cheetah, but for fuck's sake, don't be a gazelle.
It also helps the message go down a lot more smoothly that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is the funniest movie Scorsese has ever made. You even find yourself rooting for, in a fashion, the schemes and machinations of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he rises from the middle-class to true wealth and power, bringing friends like Donnie Azoff (the tremendously terrific Jonah Hill) and Brad Bodnick (the also great Jon Bernthal) along for the ride. Never mind people like FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) - they're petty nuisances, mere distractions.
Belfort has drive, ambition, even a willingness to work, but once he's set on the money path by Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a wonderful five minute scene that rivals Alec Baldwin's "Always Be Closing" speech in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), there's no going back. Belfort discovers that he can make 50% commission on penny stocks, and with a bit of swagger and showmanship, Belfort forms his company Stratton Oakmont to take from the rich and make himself richer. Stocks rise, and stocks fall, Belfort and his friends get increasingly more loaded on all variety of drugs, and sexual debauchery, and who's hurt by all this anyway?
Terence Winter's biting, funny script looks at this den of thieves with a mixture of scorn and admiration - and truth be told, it's more admiration than scorn. When these characters do behave badly, Scorsese and Winter fool us into sympathizing with them a little bit. After all, who would turn down such opportunities? THE WOLF OF WALL STREET doesn't suggest that we all would be susceptible; no, it downright insists on it. Belfort and his cohorts never see the consequences of what they do - the thousands of jobs lost at the companies they destroy, or the destabilization of an already weak economy. And, even after jail time, they still walk away rich. This is a lesson they never learn. And, really, what's to learn?
Jordan Belfort may be an asshole, but he's no dummy - he can size people up instantly and assess their vulnerabilities and strengths. He sees real strength in Donnie Azoff, and Jonah Hill's performance is revelatory. Azoff is also a man eager to shed his morality for money, but Azoff also has a sense of loyalty to Jordan that's endearing, even when that loyalty takes Azoff places he never expected to go in his life. In Jordan Belfort's world, women are simply window dressing. It wasn't always that way; his first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti) truly loved Jordan until his vices got away from him, and second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) was as beautiful as she was vacant. For Jordan, everything is negotiable, and nothing is without a price.
I get the feeling, having not read the book, that Scorsese and Winter look right into the heart of Belfort and see his true nature. They never go out of their way to make him a hero, and let his actions define him. It also helps that Leonardo DiCaprio is at his career best here. There's no moment of redemption for him, no regret for the life he's led. Like Henry Hill at the end of GOODFELLAS, his only regret is that he got caught. DiCaprio fills Belfort with disdain, and yet such eagerness and ambition that it's only natural to root for him even at his most despicable.
DiCaprio also has the single best physical comedy moment since Steve Martin tried walking across the street with Lily Tomlin's soul attached in ALL OF ME. I can't even set the scene well enough without fear of spoiling, but I will say this - the drug humor in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is some of the funniest since Cheech and Chong, and it feels only natural that Martin Scorsese tells this particular story considering his way of life in the late 1970s - early 1980s. This is, by the way, the hardest R rated movie Scorsese's ever made. He doesn't pull any punches, as well he shouldn't; there is no such thing as too much of a good thing in Jordan Belfort's world, and Scorsese remembers that great truth that is natural to all crime films - in the long run crime may not pay, but at first? Hell yes it does.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is anything but dour. Martin Scorsese has made one of the most flat-out entertaining movies of his career, masterfully edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. There is never a dull moment, and Scorsese keeps up the relentless energy throughout the entire three hours. Most filmmakers attach their own sense of moral scruples to any excess that they document, but Scorsese knows the real score. Our personal ideals and sense of righteousness cannot hope to survive the flood of money and power that Jordan Belfort gets during his time on Wall Street. We can look upon him with judgment, knowing full well that we wouldn't hesitate for one second to do the same if those opportunities came our way. Scorsese isn't judging Jordan Belfort. He can't. And, really, we can't either.
Because in the end, we'd happily join Jordan Belfort on his fantastic ride if we could. This is 'Merica, ain't it?