During the 1990s Jordan Belfort, founded stock brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont.
Belfort’s infamous firm marketed penny stocks, manipulated stock prices and hid profits in a Swiss bank account - a strategy that ultimately led to an FBI investigation.
Martin Scorsese’s vivid film brings the excesses of Belfort and his organisation into sharp focus from materialism and drug dependencies to prostitution.
‘I want to solve your problems by making you rich’, Belfort yells passionately to rows of eager brokers. As the excitable crowd drink up his hedonistic sermons, Belfort resembles a preacher addressing a desperate congregation. Capitalism as the new religion runs throughout Scorsese’s film, from a luxury yacht advert spliced into the middle of a conversation, to Belfort’s cheesy motivational video ads.
Yet Belfort’s insistence that money buys happiness via oversized houses, luxury yachts and beautiful wives is contrasted with the disturbing downward spiral of his own ‘perfect’ marriage.
Adapted from Belfort’s own memoirs by Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire creator, Terence Winter, The Wolf Of Wall Street is one of the longest films you’re likely to see this year.
But, packed with tightly written and flawlessly delivered scenes, it never feels overly so.
Scorsese’s balance of rapid fire and interesting shots with long takes - an exchange between FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) and Belfort onboard a private yacht being a particular highlight - keeps The Wolf Of Wall Street energetic and compelling.
At one point a few tiny pills fill the entire screen; for another brief moment the screen is filled with a nostril as it sniffs cocaine.
While the excesses of Belfort’s life are repeatedly pressed in our faces - party scenes are frequent but never dull - their increasing vulgarity and riskiness spills over into disturbing. Scorsese’s depiction of Belfort’s over indulgence in ‘ludes’ - a sedative that induces a high if the user resists sleep - is brave and powerful.
It’s hard to think of a sharper metaphor for Belfort’s identity than the advert for Stratton Oakmont that opens Scorsese’s film - a lion paces confidently through the office as if about to devour the weak.
Narration from Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), accompanied by rapid fire shots of Wall Street immediately immerse us in this frantic, avaricious culture before returning us to Belfort’s very first day on the stocks, eager and green.
Before we know it Belfort is having lunch with seasoned Rothschild stock broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who advises him on the importance of cocaine and masturbation before humming a strange, motivational melody. It’s a bizarre but tightly written scene with a standout performance from McConaughey that makes him one of the film’s most memorable performers despite his infinitesimal screen time.
When Rothschild closes its doors, Belfort spots a gap in the market peddling penny stocks. Recruiting unlikely but desperate young men, keen to make a fast buck and easy to control with pre-written tele-sales scripts, Belfort’s Stratton Oakmont is born.
Belfort mimics his clients while he talks on speaker phone, and we laugh, but Belfort’s contempt for the rich men he is swindling is more than a little uncomfortable to watch. Winter’s razor-edged script brings the mutations in Belfort’s character into sharp focus as Belfort exchanges his loyal but ordinary wife for model Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie).
As Scorsese zooms out of an intense argument between Belfort and his first wife, Teresa (Cristin Miloti), to reveal Belfort standing in his penthouse, high above the city, writer and director are closely in-sync and this feels like one of the best writer-director collaborations of recent years.
Meanwhile, Scorsese reunites with DiCaprio for the fifth time. It’s a collaboration that gets stronger with each movie and DiCaprio gives a knock out performance here, embodying Belfort’s evolution from ambitious broker to corrupt CEO. Belfort’s increasingly ferocious pep-talks are transfixing, while his self-confidence and nous leave us wondering if anyone but Belfort could have created Stratton Oakmont.
And, subsequently, if the recipients of his motivational talks aren’t simply more willing victims. ‘Everyone wants to get rich,’ don’t they?
After testing his dramatic chops in 2011’s Moneyball Jonah Hill also ramps it up another gear as Donnie Azoff, Stratton Oakmore’s Junior Partner.
Behind his large, gleaming white prosthetic teeth Hill steals his early scenes as Azoff, admitting he married his cousin to prevent anyone else from sleeping with her.
Scorsese pulls together a star-studded cast in The Wolf Of Wall Street that delivers in droves, receiving well deserved Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations at this year’s Oscars.
Terence Winter’s sharp, penetrating script combined with Scorsese’s eye for creative shots and fierce wit, make The Wolf Of Wall Street one of the most inventive and powerful comedy-dramas this year has to offer. And with so much to dissect in this intelligent movie, it’s one to watch over and over again.
Running Time 180 minutes