There’s a scene late in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, playing Wall Street supersalesmen Jordan Belfort and Donnie Azoff, decide to try some super-strong Quaaludes Azoff has been saving for a special occasion. They’re in Belfort’s mansion, and they ceremoniously open this pill bottle, and take one pill each. Nothing happens. They notice an expiration date on the bottle–the pills are several year’s older than should be safe. They take a few more. Again, nothing. They take some more. Suddenly, the pills kick in, and they find themselves deprived of most motor functions–they can’t really walk, swallow, talk coherently. At that point, Belfort/DiCaprio gets an urgent phone call from his private detective friend–the FBI have bugged the phones in his home, and he needs to get to a pay phone for further instructions. Somehow, he makes it to a nearby country club and uses the pay phone there, but can’t make himself understood on the phone, and collapses on the floor. But now, he realizes he needs to get back home, and he can’t walk anymore. He crawls over to the front door of the country club, rolls down the stairs, somehow drags himself along the ground to his car, and incredibly, drives home. (He thinks, safely–later we see the trail of destruction his car left behind). At home, he sees Azoff/Hill on his home phone, likewise incoherent, but talking about all sorts of illegal things that he knows the FBI shouldn’t hear. He fights Azoff/Hill for the phone, thrashing together on the kitchen counter. Azoff/Hill sees some cold cuts on the counter, and eats some ham, only he can’t swallow either, and begins choking. Meanwhile, Belfort/DiCaprio notices his daughter, staring at him, shocked, while a Popeye cartoon plays, unnoticed, behind her. But seeing Popeye eating spinach gives Belfort/DiCaprio an idea. He finds his kitchen stash of cocaine, and pours it down his nose. This stabilizes him enough to perform CPR and save his friend’s life.
I describe this sequence in some detail because it seems key to understanding Scorcese’s approach to the material. First of all, it’s a very very funny extended sequence. I heard a lot of laughter in the theater, and I was laughing out loud myself. It’s farcical, watching Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio thrashing around, fighting clumsily over a phone, wrapped in a phone cord. Equating Popeye/Spinach to DiCaprio/Cocaine was funny. It’s both horrifying and hilarious to think of DiCaprio trying to drive when he’s so incredibly impaired. And throughout the sequence, you think, ‘these guys are morons. How in the world do they not get caught? How in the world have they stayed out of prison?’
The film is based on Jordan Belfort’s book, about Stratton Oakmont, the tony sounding Wall Street firm he created, and its rise and fall. It’s not just about Belfort and Azoff. It has juicy roles for a wonderful array of character actors playing founding stockbrokers for the firm–P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zabrowski. Kyle Chandler plays the FBI agent who finally sends Belfort to jail, and the extraordinary Australian actress Margot Robbie is astonishing as Belfort’s not-terribly-long-suffering second wife, Naomi. (Naomi takes as little crap from him as she possibly can).
The film’s three hours long, but it’s a super-charged ride, brimming with brio and raw animality. The characters are almost entirely repugnant human beings, which is typical of farce–the film’s comedy comes from piling on excess after excess. In one of the earliest sequences, Stratton Oakmont employees throw velcro-wearing little people at targets, with cash bonuses awarded on the spot depending on where they stick. That scene’s not terribly funny–it’s pretty horrifying, actually–but it sets up a later/earlier (later in the film, earlier chronologically) scene, a meeting of the firm’s leadership where they, in all seriousness, plan that event. (‘They’re built for this,’ they reassure themselves).
Above all, it’s a film about selling, about the exuberance and unleashed joy (and unabashed misanthropy) of pure sales. DiCaprio is incredibly compelling here–Jay Gatsby’s comic foil–and his motivational pitches to his team are fevered odes to pure greed. You want to apply for a job with him. You want to start selling securities. You want to sell worthless crap to people who can’t afford it, and use the money to buy high-priced garbage. And lose your humanity in an orgy of sex and drugs.
It’s a film that sells a certain lifestyle, and then deconstructs its own success at doing so. It’s a film that urges us to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of vulgar excess, while maybe a small part of us wishes we could get a little for ourselves. It’s exuberant, excessive and over-the-top, and very funny. One example; vacationing on his yacht off the coast of Italy, Belfort gets an urgent call from his Swiss banker; he has to get to Geneva and it can’t wait, or he’ll lose twenty million dollars. He asks the yacht captain if they can get to Monaco quickly. The captain hesitates, says something indefinite about ‘chop.’ Belfort turns on the salesman’s charm–“sure you can!” The captain, clearly very reluctant, agrees. Cut to the yacht foundering in thirty foot waves. ‘Chop’ indeed. And Belfort shouts to Azoff that he needs him to go back to the yacht’s stateroom and get the Quaaludes. “It’s three feet underwater!” shouts Azoff into the storm. “Get my ‘ludes,” shouts Belfort. “I will not die sober!” Funny, horrifying stuff.
The film’s also really really really seriously R-rated. More F-bombs dropped than in any other Scorcese film ever, with 506, and considering that this is a Martin f-in’ Scorcese film, that’s saying something. Nudity throughout, depictions of drug use throughout, excessive party scenes like something from ancient Rome. So if you’re squeamish about those sorts of images/language, do NOT go to see this.
But as a ‘take down the rich,’ income inequality, Occupy Wall Street, seriously righteous examination of where we are as a nation (or at least where some of us are), this film can’t be topped. This is the first farce about income inequality, and it’s incredibly funny and true and shattering. It’s a tremendous political film, one that never mentions politics. Marty Scorcese, age 71, has made the most youthful protest film of the year. I’m in awe, frankly.