Who knew Leonardo DiCaprio could do physical comedy? I guess Martin Scorsese had a hunch since he brilliantly case DiCaprio in the stitches-in-your-side hilarious role of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. I don’t know that I have had so much fun at the movies since I saw This is The End. Though the two are largely incomparable, the number of laughs in Scorsese’s latest release rivals that of straightforward comedy films.
Based on true events, The Wolf of Wall Street chronicles Jordan Belfort’s rise from impressionable young Wall Street broker to multimillionaire owner of the Stratton Oakmont brokerage firm. During his first day on Wall Street, Belfort shares lunch with his boss Mark Hanna (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) who reveals an extremely lackadaisical attitude towards sex and drugs in the workplace. Hanna’s firm suffers on Black Monday, pushing Belfort back into the job market. Once he discovers the world of penny stocks in a Long Island strip mall, Jordan recognizes a vast opportunity for enterprise. Alongside his new friend Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill) and inspired by his tutelage under Hanna, Belfort quickly trains a cohort of pot hustlers to become stockbrokers, founding the Stratton Oakmont firm. Unlike any workplace I’ve ever seen, the firm is home to recreational drug use, prostitution, and lavish parties. Stratton Oakmont in time comes under FBI suspicion, meanwhile growing to a multibillion dollar enterprise as its owners resort to increasingly questionable money laundering schemes.
Along the way, Belfort loses his first wife and marries the woman with whom he was having an affair. He certainly isn’t faithful to her either, although they do have a child together. Hardly the model father, Belfort’s vices include but are hardly limited to quaaludes, extramarital sex, and money. Remarkably enough, he shows no concern for his behavior, how it damages his family or himself. There really isn’t much to like about Belfort, a materialistic, money-hungry, cheater who goes to absurd lengths in pursuit of pleasure and wealth. But in the hands of DiCaprio, Belfort’s character is intriguing enough to keep audiences hooked, despite our better judgment about this guy. The fascination lies in watching such a self-destructive human being make it out alive. And with a running time nearing three hours, it’s quite a challenge to keep audiences engaged with such a despicable protagonist. Miraculously enough, Scorsese pulls it off flawlessly. The movie never dragged, it didn’t feel long at all, and much as I hoped things would not work out for Belfort, I still wanted to know how he managed to come out on top (or at the very least, alive).
How does comedy factor into all of this? The drug scenes are certainly a source of laughs, particularly one in which DiCaprio finds a way to crawl from the payphone inside a country club back to his car, a route which includes a flight of stairs. There are more than a few great lines courtesy of Jonah Hill, which was to be expected, but DiCaprio’s comedy holds up against his costar’s. McConaughey’s portrayal of Mark Hanna sets the tone for the film; he introduces Belfort to the revelry of Wall Street at a level where the stakes are lower, allowing us as audience members to easily laugh it off. Then we find it more natural to find the humor when Belfort is on his own and the stakes are raised. For a movie so saturated with topics that typically lend heaviness to a film, comedy lightens this story and keeps it fun and entertaining.
There are plenty of those classic Scorsese elements (soundtrack and storytelling decisions in particular) that contribute to the overall quality of the film, but The Wolf of Wall Street is largely devoid of any obviously weak links. You would be hard-pressed to find a better cast, let alone an actor that could do what DiCaprio has done with the Belfort character. Making the story so ridiculous as to cull humor from it is a remarkable feat that feels effortless in the hands of Scorsese. While it is easy to critique a film like The Wolf of Wall Street for its moral depravity, its focus on such a disreputable figure, and the like, this is the kind of movie that I use my husband Mike’s litmus test on; the only real question should be did this movie entertain me? And the answer is a resounding yes.