After his established Wall Street brokerage firm goes under, a young, hot shot wannabe Master of the Universe starts his own, in a rented Long Island auto garage with a collection of his childhood friends – none of whom have any financial experience.
"Give them to me young and hungry and stupid and I promise I'll make them rich," Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) says in an early turning point in the film "The Wolf of Wall Street."
Director Martin Scorsese charges forward with equal confidence. Give Scorsese a premise and character that knows no bounds in greed, money and charisma, and he'll give you a wildly-entertaining, three-hour romp of a film. But in the way the old adage says money can't buy happiness (though Belfort surely would disagree), "The Wolf of Wall Street" doesn't do much else besides make you laugh.
Working with the memoir of the real-life Jordan Belfort – a crooked stockbroker eventually convicted and imprisoned for fraud, who also makes a cameo in the film – and a script by Terence Winter, Scorsese takes the tale of wild excess in the financial culture of the 1980s and turns it up a notch – or a couple thousand.
His Belfort starts a wide-eyed but ambitious 22-year-old trying to make a life for him and his wife (Cristin Milioti) at a prestigious brokerage firm. There he receives some words of Wall Street wisdom from an older broker (Matthew McConaughey in a small but memorable role) – "F-ck the client" and make sure to masturbate regularly – but Belfort's career there is interrupted by the crash of 1987, which sends the entire company under.
Having tasted the forbidden fruit – a mix of cocaine, lots of cash and strippers – of the Wall Street lifestyle, Belfort must find his own way, eventually discovering the trade of so-called "penny stocks," i.e., (as he puts it), "selling garbage to garbagemen." An excellent salesmen, Belfort realizes he needn't limit his swindling to the working class, that he could just as easily and far more lucratively exploit the very wealthy as well. He enlists some old pals as well as a new one to start his own firm, and that's only the beginning of the financial scheming – much of it illegal – that propels him to Master of the Universe-status.
Scorsese doesn't want to bore you with details of Belfort's stock manipulation. He would rather wow you with the ridiculous lifestyle Belfort's fraudulent activity attains for him. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is not a critique of capitalism or even those who abuse it. It's a rags-to-riches tale, but certainly not a cautionary one. Belfort's high-flying, drug-fueled, sex-crazed revelries never slow down enough for him to really reckon with moral consequences of his exploits. He skates by close-call after close-call that threaten to blow his house of cards down, and even his final punishment – a meager 22 months in jail – never casts doubt whether all the financial wrongdoing was worth it.
"The Wolf of Wall Street" is an opportunity for Scorsese to show off his filmmaking prowess and how far he is willing to push his film's gilded envelope. Despite its length (179 minutes, and the first cut was even longer), "The Wolf of Wall Street" moves at breakneck speed, as Belfort thinks up his juggernaut of a financial scam, ropes in his inner circle – which includes his affably manic father (Rob Reiner), a best bud he makes along the way (Jonah Hill) and a charmingly conniving Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin) – and swim in all the wealth it brings him. Not surprisingly, Belfort ditches his first wife for a new model (Margot Robbie), a blond bombshell known as the "Duchess of Bay Ridge." Meanwhile an earnest (perhaps the only earnest character in the whole movie) hardworking FBI agent (Kyle Chandler) labors to take down Belfort's whole operation.
Belfort's antics are unmatched in both their imagination and grandeur, and the film basks in the legendary gluttony of the late '80s and early '90s. Of course there is ample drug use, sex galore, fancy cars and fancy yachts. But there is also a dwarf throwing contest, a naked marching band and the helicopter Belfort drunkenly crashes in his own front yard. Just as hilarious is the riffing Belfort does with Hill's character Donnie, and the other friends (Chester Ming, Alden Kupferberg, Ethan Suple, Jon Bernthal, Nicky Koskoff) he brings along for the ride.