Things may have been different for Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) if he hadn’t met Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in an extended cameo), who teaches him the in’s and out’s of trading stocks. Hanna’s view on the business is, well, less than legal. He’s also a big fan of cocaine and hookers, all of which Belfort takes in with child-like glee.
Maybe if Black Monday didn’t fall on his first day with his Series 7 license he’d have been an honest man. Instead, he’s left with a wife to support, and he does so by entering the penny stocks game. His Wall Street mentality leads to big bucks, and with the help of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort creates his own financial firm. Soon after, he’s a millionaire, snorting cocaine like its nobody’s business and hanging no sex during office hours signs in his company’s bathrooms.
Scorsese is on top of his game in “Wolf.” He hasn’t made a film on this level since 1995′s “Casino” or maybe even “Goodfellas.” Yes, “The Departed” is very, very good, but it’s not “Raging Bull” or “Taxi Driver” good. “Wolf” is probably a shade better than “The Departed,” a lower entry on the director’s top tier of pictures he’s made. The film captures the sheer cinematic energy that used to define Scorsese’s work. It’s also arguably the funniest film Scorsese has ever made. Belfort’s drug-fueled escapes are hilarious, especially when he tries to get in his car high on twenty-year-old Quaaludes.
A lot of that energy comes from DiCaprio and Hill, who are both at their career best. DiCaprio plays off his effortless charisma to make Belfort someone people want to follow, and Hill just completely transforms himself into the awkward Azoff. Each of them deserve an Oscar nomination, and hopefully those turned off by the drug use (and good lord is there a lot) won’t miss out on these fantastic performances.
As visceral, funny and entertaing as “Wolf” is, too much of it feels lifted straight from “Goodfellas.” Belfort’s entry into the stock market is a lot like Henry Hill’s first foray into the mafia in “Goodfellas,” with Belfort wide-eyed and intoxicated by the world of trading. There’s also a lot of voice over in the film. Scorsese breaks the fourth wall at points. The feds have the same condescending interactions with criminals. Belfort and Hill are almost two sides of the same coin, each living a lie, each fated to go out with a whimper, not a bang. With the exception of no killing, to go by “Wolf” there’s very little difference between gangsters and stock traders.
The two are also similar in that they make for excellent films from Martin Scorsese. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of the year’s best.