Martin Scorsese, director of "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "Casino," and now "The Wolf on Wall Street," never backs away from excess.
Think of him as an X-treme filmmaker who with focus and seeming glee pushes open the door on the human condition revealing all its violent, decadent and dark forms. His characters are, almost to a person, vulgar, despicable and morally bankrupt (which is not to say they're not interesting, even compelling to watch). His narratives constantly beg the question: Is this how the world works? Are there really people so loathsome and depraved that their lives are akin to X-rated strip malls of manic, remorseless behavior buffered by a constant flow of Quaaludes, Adderall, Xanax, pot and cocaine?
So over-the-top is "Wolf" that it pushes into satire as it follows the protagonist, stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who scams his way along, first selling penny stocks to unsuspecting working-class buyers and finally creating a white shoe company he names Stratton Oakmont, targeting the affluent with the same penny hustle.
As he soon begins to make millions, he surrounds himself with like-minded brokers who revel in the heavy-handed deal, a roomful of men and women whose core beliefs reflect Jordan's, beliefs that begin and end with the mantra: It is never about the client; it is always about the commission. The base philosophy is, do whatever it takes as long as it results in a profit, an obscene profit if possible. Again, not for the client, for the trader.
Jordan Belfort is an awful human being who finds his life defined by that endorphin/dopamine rush brought on by sustained acquisition — mansions, fast cars, hookers, drugs, 3K suits, yachts and a trophy wife. Actually, all the women in "Wolf" are treated as objects, debased and discarded, and viewed through a misogynistic prism by the males who work in the firm's boiler room. And while their humiliation is complete, it is never questioned. But then the same could be said of their clients. The consensual rape just comes in another form.
Jordan is the quintessential Gordon Gekko ("greed is good") of "Wall Street." He is Henry Hill from "Goodfellas." And though Jordan provides the voice-over to the film, there is never a single moment of self-reflection or troubled thought regarding the direction of his life or the possible unintended consequences. Jordan is Jay Gatsby on steroids, absent any rationale for his pathology other than his reflexive, bacchanalian need for stuff and his complete embrace of the money culture. He, and all those who gravitate to him, this band of brothers and sisters, all worship at the shrine of profit, however made, coupled with excess in general.
What Scorsese does in "Wolf" is pummel the audience as only he can; the narrative never yields. He is a skilled filmmaker and so for three hours, Jordan's headlong rush forward into an abyss of indecency is unrelenting. This milieu, says the film, existed from the mid-1980s into the aughts, in what was (still is?) Wall Street. And DiCaprio gives an exhausting, all-consuming performance, supported by Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner and Margot Robbie.
While it is true that "The Wolf of Wall Street" was adapted from the memoir by the real Belfort, it is hard to imagine that he actually constructed such a life, a life lived on a precipice. True, as is shown in the film, the FBI does begin to track him, and he is ultimately indicted and jailed. But there is never a moment for Jordan that is redemptive. His time in jail, whatever fines he incurred, the loss of his home, wife and children, were just the cost of doing his type of business.
Now it is on to the next scam.