The film does risk glorifying the utterly materialistic, debauched life it depicts. However, to see the film as a celebration of men like Belfort is to misread it. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter fill the borders of their story with smaller moments and details that showcase the human cost of their outrageous actions. This culminates in the film’s remarkable final shot, which indicts its viewer by forcing them to reconsider how they have been watching the story.
Scorsese makes some of those points through repetition. This is, after all, a three-hour movie, and while the film’s scenes of revelry are shocking and exciting at first, by the story’s end the audience is repulsed by Belfort’s actions. That might sound like a negative, and it’s likely that viewers with little patience for long movies will think so, but Scorsese uses that length effectively.
I should probably mention that this is also an outrageously funny movie, and much of that humor comes from Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Belfort. DiCaprio is not someone usually thought of as a comedian—you have to go back to 2002’s Catch Me If You Can for his last film that could feasibly be called a comedy—but he shows an entirely new side of himself here. His Belfort is a bundle of manic energy, and he is always just charming enough that you don’t become totally disgusted with his antics. It’s a flashy performance, but a surprisingly delicate one. If DiCaprio were too over-the-top, the film would collapse into a tedious series of supposedly outrageous moments.
One of the film’s many climaxes comes in a scene where Belfort accidentally takes a few too many extra-strength quaaludes, a hallucinogenic drug, and finds himself unable to speak clearly just when the government is making a crucial move against him.
It’s a comic masterpiece of a scene—a sequence that verges on slapstick—but it also shows just how damaging Belfort’s choices have been both to himself and to those around him. DiCaprio has had a remarkable run of performances lately, between his villainous turn in “Django Unchained” and his measured take on an iconic character in The Great Gatsby, but Wolf of Wall Street might possibly be his best work yet.
Belfort appears in almost every scene of the movie, but Scorsese makes sure the supporting cast is able to match DiCaprio’s energy. Matthew McConaughey pops up early on for a few scenes, playing a more experienced broker who teaches Belfort the ropes, and he sets the tone for the film’s crass sense of humor and rampant selfishness. McConaughey teaches Belfort that selfishness is the true name of the game.
Jonah Hill—who just picked up an Oscar nomination for his work in the film, meaning we somehow live in a world where he is two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill—plays Belfort’s sidekick, an overtly comic character who doesn’t have much of a dramatic arc.
Hill is good, certainly, but I find the Oscar nomination perplexing, as he doesn’t have all that much to do in the movie other than wear gigantic fake teeth and take a lot of drugs. Newcomer Margot Robbie made a much larger impression as Belfort’s second wife, Naomi, a role that could have been utterly forgettable. Robbie imbues Naomi with a steely strength that helps her to stand out from the endless line of sexual partners Belfort and his associates have throughout the film.
Naomi, like most of the women in the film, functions as a male sex object. Most of the women in the film exist entirely for the men of Belfort’s firm. One scene, in which Belfort classifies the different prices of prostitutes he hires, is particularly loathsome, although it also suggests a disconnect between the way Belfort thinks of these women and the way the film sees them.
Belfort may take glee in his callous treatment of the women, but the viewer is perturbed by his lackadaisical attitude. Still, there is a lot of female nudity in the film, and while there is also more male nudity than is usually present in today’s movies, the camera focuses on the women’s bodies far more often that it does on the men’s.
Despite that, there are some intriguing moments, such as Belfort’s encounters with the female brokers at his firm and his relationship with his first wife, ensure the film presents a more measured depiction of women than an outright negative one. Depiction is not endorsement.
Wolf of Wall Street is not a movie interested in placing moral judgments front and center, and critics have been quick to place blame on the screenplay. I would argue that those judgments are present in the film, if you’re willing to look a little deeper than the madness presented in the foreground. An FBI investigator played by Kyle Chandler who enters the story in its second half is particularly important to that aspect of the film.
The Wolf of Wall Street is just as concerned with our envy and vicarious desire to be like Belfort as our disgust. The final shot of the film concludes a rather biting scene. Belfort, finally released from incarceration, is now a successful motivational speaker who teaches consumers how to sell and, ideally, be rich like him. Are we any better than Belfort?
This is the fifth film Scorsese and DiCaprio have made together, but it is the first that truly steps out from the shadow of Scorsese’s titanic career. Hopefully, they’ll continue this collaboration and keep making such confident and self-assured movies together.