If THE GREAT GATSBY’s Nick Carraway arrived on Wall Street in the late 1980s and decided that the corruption and decadence was pretty awesome, he’d look something like Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Jordan starts out with notions of doing right by the clients while making money for his firm and himself, but his first day on the job he’s quickly disabused of such thinking. As his boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) makes clear, they’re playing with other people’s money. The point is to keep the investors’ cash in the game so they can keep getting their share via commission.
Jordan finds himself out of a job after the October 1987 stock market crash, but his fortunes take a marked upturn when he begins pitching penny stocks in a strip mall boiler room in the suburbs. He’s a gifted salesman who knows exactly what to say to convince blue collar types to risk their hard-earned cash on companies unlikely to produce the returns he implies are possible. The commission percentages are much higher on the garbage he’s selling than on the blue chip stocks, so it isn’t long before Jordan is earning fat checks and striking out on his own.
Jordan’s brilliant idea is to open his own brokerage house that lures wealthy investors with familiar investment options and then pushes a bunch of the crap stocks on them. Jordan perfects the script that he teaches to his right hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and some old friends so they can land well-heeled clients. The plan works like a charm. Jordan rebrands the firm as the more legitimate-sounding Stratton Oakmont and moves them out of a former auto body shop on Long Island to offices in New York City’s financial district.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET has faced some criticism for making Jordan’s excessive and criminal lifestyle seem too attractive without condemning it, especially because this is based on a true story, but that’s precisely the point. Jordan has what a lot of people want. He’s just one of the few able to get it by exploiting get rich quick dreams. It goes without saying that Jordan and associates are horrible people, but they’re the manifestation of a culture that confuses the pursuit of wealth with the pursuit of happiness.
Jordan and his employees are nothing more than con men operating under a more respectable banner. DiCaprio shines as a huckster whose disdain for his marks ignores the fact that he too has bought into the slick talk he uses to rip them off. When Jordan gives savage inspirational speeches to his work force, DiCaprio comes off like a bright-eyed cult leader. He’s very persuasive, yet his monologues seem designed to convince himself of the worthiness of his choices as much as they are to fire up the cold callers doing his bidding. This puffery emerges in Jordan’s unreliable narration. For instance, an amount of cash he claims was stolen from his Trump Tower apartment increases as he tells the story. When Jordan is wrong or inconsistent with the details, it’s in service of building his own legend, which makes him more self-assured and more of an authority to those turning to him for guidance.
Jordan uses words to seduce, and DiCaprio relishes every one in his performance, whether he’s barking out motivational speeches or flirting with bribing an FBI agent. DiCaprio hints at a wink behind everything Jordan says. It’s as if he’s asking the rhetorical question “ain’t I a stinker” while beaming with pride at his ignoble accomplishments and actions. DiCaprio also attacks the physical comedy with zest, particularly when Jordan crawls down a country club’s front steps to his car while incapacitated on powerful sedatives and engages in a slow motion chase of Donnie when he gets home.
Although THE WOLF OF WALL STREET places the spotlight on an unflattering portrait of individual and collective aspirations, Winter’s screenplay spots a lot of humor in the squalor and buffoonery. All that’s missing is a laugh track to these men behaving badly. The question is whether all that cackling is because of the idea that these slimeballs are to be envied and emulated or that there are so many suckers waiting to be bled dry.