Sometime the less-is-more adage just doesn't do a story justice. I can't image a subtly told version of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, the latest from director Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who isn't best known for dialed-back stories or performances, but he is certainly capable of them. The truth is, like all great directors, Scorsese knows how to tempers the tones of his films to the material. This may seem like an obvious ploy, but you'd be surprised how often the two don't mesh as they should. But the director of RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, and THE DEPARTED clearly had a few ideas about how to approach the book by the film's subject, New York strockbroker Jordan Belfort (the screenplay was written by Terence Winter, a showrunner of Scorsese's "Boardwalk Empire," as well as a frequent writer on "The Sopranos"); he goes about as far and as fast as you can go without your head exploding.
A word you're probably already hearing a lot of in connection with this film is "excess," which is indeed appropriate to a point. The film epitomizes a culture where an almost unlimited supply of cash (most of which is legitimately gotten under the financial laws of the time) is at hand, and what can be done with it is limited only by imagination. But what is perhaps more terrifying about this story is that the true source of excess isn't money; it's that there is almost no one in the world (government, law enforcement, etc.) telling his clowns "Stop" with any credible means of making them do so. I don't mean to imply that simply saying the word would make they cease and desist, but it would have been nice to no someone was trying to put a stop of what they were up to or at least closing the loopholes they were doing swan dives through to take money from trusting clients.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is an embarrassment of riches, not just in terms of how many great performances are featured in it, but just how completely many chances the performers take in their portrayal of greedy assholes and the people who work with them. Beginning and ending with Leonardo DiCaprio's no-hold-barred take on Belfort, a man who never envisioned himself as anything but disgustingly successful. But there are moments where the typically reserved DiCaprio just loses his shit and gives us something death-defying at times. A particularly hilarious sequence involving a drug-fueled trip to and from the hospital where he's literally moving in slow motion is sheer comic perfection. And make no mistake, this film plays best as a comedy--not the kind with punchlines, but the kind with acts so outrageous and situations so unbelievable, they could only take place in the real world.
I don't know how you can watch Jonah Hill in this film and not want to smack him across the face for being so good as Donnie Azoff, a man who quits his sales job to join Belfort when he was just selling penny stocks to become his right-hand man and an even bigger drug-fueled douche than Belfort. Whereas Belfort is great with people (especially when it comes to separating them from their money), Azoff hated people, especially those with less money than him. There are a couple of nasty exchanges between him and a character named Brad (Jon Bernthal), a low-level but integral part of the operation, where Azoff shows so much contempt for this man, that he deserves a beat down, and you'll likely want to be the one giving it to him. It takes a great deal of talent to play a character so loveably despised, but Hill pulls it off effortlessly.
When Belfort founds the brokerage firm of Stratton Oakmont (a name selected essentially because it sounds classy), that's when things begin to go from suit-and-tie investment house to a version of a Roman orgy on a daily basis. The lengths that Belfort would go to to keep his troops motivated and compensated were limitless, but expect to see more strippers, hookers, blow, alcohol, and just general devastation than you've likely seen in any movie in your life. A complaint that has risen from this film is that it repeats these excesses over and over, but I think overkill is part of Scorsese's plan. So much high-volume, high-energy partying would knock any normal human being on their ass. But the employees at Stratton Oakmont were superhuman when it came to intake and tolerances.
A list of the film's more pleasant surprises has to be topped by a breakthrough performance by Margot Robbie as Belfort's second wife Naomi Lapaglia, a stunning and smart model who works her way into his life as if it were meant to be. I've only ever seen the Australian actress in the short-lived series "Pan Am," but she's tough to forget and she goes toe to toe in a film populated by alpha-male characters. Solid work also comes from Kyle Chandler as Agent Patrick Denham, who is investigating Belfort's possible criminal activity. There's a sequence on Belfort's yacht with the agent that features a great back and forth between the two (including a veiled bribe attempt), and the more Belfort tries to seem like he's not afraid of the authorities, the more he clearly is terrified of them. The most brilliant diamond in this sea of chaos is Matthew McConaughey as Mark Hanna, Belfort's early boss who lays out a work ethic over a multi-cocktail lunch that will likely make you sick to your stomach and hopelessly entertained.
It's easy to forget while watching THE WOLF OF WALL STREET that much of what we're seeing occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, because so much of the corruption and power run unchecked seems so timely. Scorsese and Winter are no dummies; they're fully aware of the phenomenon of history repeating itself and show us just how true that is and how recent history can be. The key to Belfort's success was not by being conniving; it was by convincing those he was selling to that they could get a piece of what he had and do no actual work to earn it. That has become the American Dream, and Belfort saw that and exploited it. Is it, by definition, corruption if those on both sides of the table are complicit? This is what this film wants you to think about, and I haven't been able to stop doing so since I saw it.
Scenes will repeat themselves in your head. They'll get in there because of the nudity and sex and partying that surrounds it, but they'll stay there because there's something else going on, and bigger questions and issues being raised. It's a remarkable film that frankly needs its epic length (three hours, folks!) to drive its poignant themes home and give room for these remarkable performances to breathe and grow to grotesque proportions. This film is so strong, it makes me scared at how much better Scorsese might still get.