Based on real-life events, Martin Scorsese’s black comedy focuses on the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street mogul who operated a pump-and-dump scheme in the late 80s and was subject to FBI investigation.
Queens-born Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is young, handsome, and insanely ambitious. He comes from a modest background, but desires to get to the top as much as anyone. In 1987, he lands a stockbroker job at L.F. Rothschild, working for the charismatic Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), who entices him with a win-at-all-costs attitude.
However, on Black Monday, the company suffers extreme losses and Belfort is out of a job. Discouraged and struggling to pay the bills, he catches on with a boiler room brokerage firm on Long Island that specializes in penny stocks. While a far cry from his previous job, the determined Belfort succeeds almost immediately and amasses a small fortune.
Soon enough, Belfort strikes up a professional relationship with his neighbor, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and together with several of Belfort’s friends and colleagues, they start their own business. The basic method that they use is a pump-and-dump scam, artificially inflating stock prices and scamming investors in order to make quick cash. In order to avoid possible probes into their illegal activity, Belfort gives his new company the respectable-sounding name of Stratton Oakmont.
The firm starts out very successfully, and Belfort is soon the subject line of numerous articles and newspapers columns including a non-flattering portrait and exposé in Forbes. Nonetheless, 20-somethings and recent college grads flock to Stratton Oakmont in record numbers, wanting a piece of the action.
Belfort and his colleagues became astonishingly successful, raking in millions of dollars and indulging in decadent lifestyles of cocaine, prostitutes, and expensive yachts. The SEC and the FBI begin to take an interest in Stratton Oakmont, even going so far as to interview Belfort personally, but with little concrete evidence tying him to illegal activities, they’re unable to do anything further. Together with his new wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), Belfort develops more and more ambitious schemes to stay one step ahead of the feds and remain the head of his own personal kingdom.
I recently rewatched The Wolf of Wall Street and I’ve gotta admit, this film is still one of Martin Scorsese’s best. It is one of the most entertaining black comedies of the past decade, while still having an emotional core and working as a pretty vicious satire. It also shows Scorsese’s versatility as a director; people always associate him with his award-winning crime/mafia films, such as Goodfellas, The Departed, and Casino, but Scorsese has made some outstanding films in many different genres.
The Wolf of Wall Street also marked the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and DiCaprio, the latter of whom also co-produced the film. DiCaprio had secured the rights to Jordan Belfort’s memoir back in 2007 and had wanted to bring Scorsese onboard for quite sometime. The movie had been in pre-production for several years, and Scorsese had worked on several script rewrites with screenwriter Terence Winter. However, Warner Bros had not given the green light for production dates, frustrating Scorsese, and he eventually moved on to other projects, including Shutter Island and Hugo. In 2010, the studio offered it to Ridley Scott to direct, with DiCaprio starring.
Scott ended up passing on the project, and Scorsese came back on board when notable independent company Red Granite Pictures became involved; this gave Scorsese free reign without fear of studio censorship. Eventually, Paramount distributed the film in the North American market.
The Wolf of Wall Street was a massive financial success when it was released in December 2013, and to this day is Scorsese’s highest-grossing film ever ($392 million worldwide). The movie received five Oscar nominations, including for DiCaprio and Scorsese, as well as Jonah Hill’s first nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. Numerous critics praised the film as a brilliant black comedy and it appeared on many end-of-year top ten lists. While DiCaprio did not win the Best Actor Oscar, he did win the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
While a resounding commercial success, The Wolf of Wall Street received some controversy from critics and audiences alike, focusing on the apparent morally ambiguous tone of the film. I disagree with this; I feel like Scorsese and Winter handled the source material very well and didn’t make excuses for the characters’ actions, and here’s why:
While based on a real story and real person, The Wolf of Wall Street does succeed as a smart, biting satire of Wall Street indulgence. Some people may feel that presenting such irresponsible actions as comedy is setting a poor example, but I don’t really feel that way. Yes, the movie has some serious adult content that is inappropriate for young viewers, but the fact of the matter is that this film is supposed to be over-the-top, because it’s a story that wouldn’t be considered believable if it took itself too seriously.
Several real-life victims of Belfort’s schemes (or relatives of victims) also criticized the film’s portrayal of the characters, feeling that they were simply portrayed as rowdy, coke-addicted fratboys rather than career white-collar criminals, as well as refusing to focus on the ruined lives of Stratton Oakmont’s victims. Both Scorsese and DiCaprio denied these allegations, arguing that focusing too much on the victims would distract from the actual actions that directly led to the downfall of Belfort and his empire.
The bottom line is that The Wolf of Wall Street is about a guy who wanted to have it all and eventually became obsessed to the point of destroying himself, his business, and his family. DiCaprio even mentioned that, in his performance as Belfort, he was inspired by another famously decadent, power-hungry film character — Malcolm McDowell’s Emperor Caligula in the infamous 1973 film of the same name.
Some might consider the film’s serious language, sexual content, and drug use to be a deal-breaker, and I understand that. But, to me, Scorsese balanced the line between satire and drama very well, aside from a few tonal inconsistencies from scene to scene. The Wolf of Wall Street is also three hours long and may be difficult to sit through for certain people, but overall, this is another intelligent, entertaining achievement from Scorsese that still deserves the acclaim it initially received.
- Directed by Martin Scorsese
- Screenplay by Terence Winter
- Based on the book by Jordan Belfort
- Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, and Emma Tillinger Koskoff
- Director of Photography — Rodrigo Prieto
- Editor — Thelma Schoonmaker
- Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Jon Bernthal, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin, Ethan Suplee, Brian Sacca, Christine Ebersole, Kenneth Choi, P.J. Byrne, Cristin Milioti, Jake Hoffman
- Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence.