Former financial world criminal Jordan Belfort hasn't finished paying his court-ordered restitution. He's not even close. He owes $110 million to roughly 1,500 people that he defrauded over the course of his tenure hawking bad stock as the "Wolf of Wall Street." It's a fraction of what he and his company stole and he's paid back about $11 million so far. In spite of this, he's taken to publicly complaining about the way the press keeps hounding him about his responsibilities. Poor him.
Belfort is, terrifyingly enough, a writer and motivational speaker now, teaching people how to make cash in ways that, it can be presumed, do not involve fleecing hapless suckers. But that's how the man (played here by an unhinged, bellowing Leonardo DiCaprio) made his multi-millions. He was the nasty Gatsby of his 1990's moment, obsessed with having quite a bit more than his fair share of superwealth (a trait DiCaprio's version brazenly declares "makes me a better person"). Belfort had no sense of right or wrong, a disturbing condition possibly fueled by the Space Mountain-sized pile of cocaine he inhaled during those years, but which may possibly still live within his post-prison sobriety. And in his story director Martin Scorsese has found what comes next after excavating and examining the sociopathic behavior of mobsters: the mental illness of culturally sanctioned greed.
Putting it that way doesn't make this person sound like a lot of fun to hang with for even five minutes, much less 179, I know. But Scorsese is a master of detailing the rise and fall and rise of criminals. He can even make you root for them, thrill you with their giddy, slimy evil, and this time around he's rolling deep in the mania. From the opening scenes juxtaposing a fake TV ad for Belfort's firm -- one that hilariously preppy-trolls potential clients with words like "stability" and "integrity" -- with images from what appears to be an office orgy involving group-throwing a little person at a giant Velcro bullseye, Scorcese jackhammers home a familiar point about American culture. We celebrate (and dream of) excessive wealth as long as we can simultaneously disapprove and shake our heads at it. But this time he strips away his own impulse to scold overtly, allowing the depiction of depravity to act as its own warning.
Belfort rises to the top of the scum food chain and takes his friends with him (Jonah Hill gives a freakish, wild-eyed, scene-stealing performance, both funny and memorably sad, as Belfort'right-hand man), nearly killing himself and others in the process, never learning from his crimes. An FBI guy (Kyle Chandler) quietly trails him, girlfriends and wives passively look the other way, but Scorsese is less interested in the white light of law and order (and whatever it is the women are thinking about, the director has never been much for figuring out what to do with the opposite sex, at least not since Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) than he is in the white heat of grasping, gluttonous insanity, all while Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge" skronks forth from of the soundtrack.
It's a virtuosic display from the filmmaker, full of excess, oral sex, Ferraris, sea and air disasters, chimpanzees and -- appropriately for the well-documented cinephile -- textual and visual allusions to Tod Browning's Freaks, Bob Fosse's All That Jazz and even Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (what is a scene of a half-tormented/half-ecstatic female employee submitting to a humiliating workplace head shaving if not a chance to perversely mimic silent film star Maria Falconetti's religious defiance at the hands of her male torturers?)
And as Scorsese's money-monster, DiCaprio pushes himself into the deep end of Big Performance, the kind where "more is more" is just the right thing to do. He dives, literally, into physical comedy and an electric sort of soul-death, creating a madman who's intoxicating to watch. He beats his chest and explodes the rules, spews quaalude gibberish and makes it rain on FBI men. Then he flips off justice and what comes after. And we know it's gross to want to keep looking at the destruction -- the real guy is just going to collect more book royalties and speaking fees after this -- but we will anyway. Maybe if we get close enough he'll make it rain on us, too?