There are copious amounts of drugs consumed during The Wolf Of Wall Street. At one early point the titular Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) boasts of his day-to-day consumption that makes his job as a successful stockbroker possible. His everyday is a whirlwind of cursing, stress, and complete expenditure only made possible by the counteracting cocktail of drugs swooshing through his veins at all times. Of course, when he says with utter hubris of his favourite drug while snorting up a line of cocaine, he isn't speaking of the narcotic itself but the instrument used to consume it - money. This epic tale of greed and mayhem is directed by the 70+ year old Martin Scorsese with the same youthful vigour and passion he's always brought to the fold, written with the same attention to detail we'd expect from Terrence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and acted so fearlessly by DiCaprio this might well be his finest performance to date.
When Jordan Belfort shows up in New York City in the late 80s to make his way up the financial ladder, he's not so much baby faced and full of innocence, no. Such broad strokes of character would be dishonest but the young professional who clearly wants to make a dollar and a cent in life is earnest enough. He's married and wants to provide, admirable, but as he ascends the corporate ladder thanks to the 'kind' jump start of a higher stockbroker played by Matthew McConaughey, whatever moral code lived by before gets destroyed almost over night.
McConaughey's Mark Hanna gives Belfort a prep-talk over lunch, or rather Martinis; this perfectly pitched scene reveals the inner workings of a stockbroker's mind, the environment they inhabit, their code of conduct. This scene echoes throughout the film and acts so well as an anchored reference point so effectively thanks to McConaughey's remarkable screen presence. He impacts on us as much as Belfort, he impresses with his hypnotising speech, lulling us in with a twisted poetry of sorts like a charming devil.
For all of The Wolf Of Wall Street's narrative vigour that continues the trademark sweep of Goodfellas and Casino, not to mention its mammoth run time, the film is perfectly pitched while it drastically changes tone and speed. Scenes such as Hanna's prep-talk feel at ease in a film that constantly pushes forward to match the overbearing ambition of its characters. Other lengthy dialogue scenes such as Belfort and his new employee Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) are equally well placed despite not actually moving the 'story' but by setting us uneasily in the psyche of the film's players. This has always been one of Scorsese's main strengths. They talk about Azoff's marriage to his first cousin, a humorous conversion set in disbelief and perversion before ending with the two smoking crack cocaine round the back of a bar. Like so many of the film's unsavoury acts it causes awkward laughter because in cases such as these you've got a choice to do either that or cry instead.
As Belfort's own enterprise flowers with the help of Azoff and an assortment of streetwise cronies from Belfort's own past, he rises to great fortune and power in an almost Charles Foster Kane like ascension, losing bit-by-bit his perception of the real world outside of great wealth, falling into delusions of grandeur. There's a moment in Goodfellas when after living the high life and losing everything, Henry Hill looks into the camera to complain to us how horrible his working class life has become, how he misses fine food, women, drugs, and power. That seminal crime film was Scorsese's guilty pleasure as despite its rise and fall structure it doesn't actually provide redemption as Hill is only sorry for getting caught and nothing else. This attitude and radical point of addressing the audience is where TWOWS jumps off from, with Belfort at one point even stopping mid-sentence as he explains one of his scams doubting we the audience can follow him, so he dumbs it down. This cocky demeanour flows throughout as Belfort serves as our guide through this epic, sordid affair, but never does it itself talk down to its audience. This is fine filmmaking from a master director still with gas in the tank; the film is about detestable people which on this occasion doesn't equate a detestable film like some detractors have put forth. With La Dolce Vita, Fellini delved into the shallow lives and excesses of the paparazzi, the film's moral centre left aloof as finding one amongst the rising rubble of postwar Italy seemed impossible to Fellini within that time and subculture. This was the film's point and it doesn't make it any less of an important work for it.
Belfort's downfall comes not only in his ego, his belief that he's a king, but in the form of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and as the film descends into anarchy as the seams of Belfort and Co's company comes apart from this added heat and their inability to function on the cocktails of drugs do we really see the film for what it is - a story of addiction.
The film leaves a bad taste in the mouth but remains wholly worthy perhaps only due to the creative team behind it. It's a shameless divulgence into the lives of the shameless as Belfort's memoirs are re-inacted on screen, giving us a snapshot into his absurdist excess through success. How reliable these accounts are can be left up to the reader or viewer, though one thing is sure, it's one hell of a ride and one that has left many irate. It's been argued that the film grants Belfort and his many cronies a pardon of sorts as their lives are explored (the press have been arguing this about crime pictures since Howard Hughes's Scarface 1932), but its purpose is to look into the dark heart of money (the root of all evil) and if anything The Wolf Of Wall Street is one of the more affective representations of addiction of recent years.
As well as an historic snapshot into the precursive events that helped the economic crash of 2007-08, and the inner mechanical workings of those who helped these events transpire through sheer greed, TWOWS acts as well as any film i've seen in recent years as a looking into addiction. For all the drugs taken they only truly serve as a platform to accomplish the real insatiable accomplishments of the stockbrokers. These are shark-like men after blood, always hungry, never content with what they've got. Belfort tries to justify the lifestyle of the rich, saying that the rich can live well while helping charities; he seems to believe these words but we never see him help anyone but himself and whatever money (if any at all) is given to the poor will be nothing on the excess riches lavished on themselves.
When Denham's FBI look set to take Belfort down he threatens to go legit on the advice of his father (Rob Reiner), he announces it to the company and in this scene it looks for a second like the film is siding with 'The Wolf' himself, feeling pity as he steps down from his throne as others weep. But Belfort cannot leave, denounces his retirement and puts on an egotistical show as usual. Unsurprisingly this leads to his downfall as a result. It's in this moment that you see the addict, not to a substance but to a lifestyle. In the film's remarkably powerful final scene, now out of prison and supporting himself in tours of 'how to get ahead' like business seminars, he hands out a pen to his audience and asks individual members to sell it back to him. Echoing an earlier scene in which he did the same to his cronies before their business venture, DiCaprio's sad and sullen eyes reflect the disappointment of this audiences's pathetic attempts. His time as king has past, he walked (or so he thought) with the best of them, lived like the best of them. He's desperate for that high again, that inspiration, that energy to lead to that rush of riches but now he's surrounded by schmucks.