Jordan Belfort was the real-life founder of a mammoth corrupt stock brokerage that conned its clients out of hundreds of millions, for which he went to prison for a mere three years. (At least he got some jail time, unlike the crooks responsible for market meltdown that led to the Great Recession.) His autobiography, openly recounting his sordid life of heavy drug use, betrayals of loved ones as well as customers, and tons of illicit sex (every cloud has a silver lining), served as the basis for this film.
So naturally director Martin Scorsese turned it into a genuinely hilarious comedy.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Belfort and Jonah Hill his business partner and closest friend. The cast includes Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s mentor, Rob Reiner as his father, Margot Robbie as his hot trophy wife, Joanna Lumley as her Aunt Emma (showing her age at 68 but still quite attractive), Jean Dujardin (The Artist, OSS 117) as a Swiss banker, and John Favreau as Belfort’s lawyer. Reiner and Favreau are both directors as well as actors (the former probably best known for When Harry Met Sally and the latter for Iron Man), and another director, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), has a minor part as well.
In one scene Belfort kisses Aunt Emma, and reportedly DiCaprio was so nervous that it took nearly 20 takes. That, or he really enjoyed kissing Joanna Lumley.
Belfort starts out as an ambitious young broker who hopes to make money for his clients as well as himself until his boss Matthew McConaughey explains that nobody knows which stocks are good buys and his only job is to make money for the firm. When the 1987 crash puts McConaughey’s long-established brokerage out of business, Belfort is reduced to telemarketing high-commission penny stocks out of a storefront in New Jersey. He does OK until his (first) wife, troubled that he’s ripping off middle class folks, urges him to target rich people instead. This proves to be a gold mine of an idea, since not only can they afford to lose money, they have a lot more of it to lose.
He starts his own company out of a closed car repair shop and is soon handling major deals in a giant office in Manhattan, using various schemes to hide his real income and wealth from the IRS. A Forbes article exposing his lack of ethics results in hordes of job applicants who want to get rich too. Meanwhile his drug use and other problems are tearing up his personal life. The drugs also lead to one of the funniest slapstick sequences in recent film history. It’s not all laughs, though; there are some pretty serious moments.
The Wolf of Wall Street runs three hours, and amazingly enough the time seems to fly by.
My one real criticism is that while it’s obvious that Belfort and his cohorts are evil SOBs, we never really see how their actions hurt the people they prey upon. Granted, that might have interfered with the comedy, but it could have been addressed near the end, which is fairly sober anyway.
(The thing Matthew McConaughey does in the trailer above, humming and whacking himself in the chest, is apparently an exercise he does as part of his preparation for acting. Reportedly Scorcese saw this, thought it was pretty funny, and asked him to do it in the scene.)