The film received mostly positive reviews from critics, with praise for Scorsese's direction, the comedic performance of DiCaprio and the fast-paced and consistent humor. The film was nominated for several awards including five nominations at the 86th Academy Awards ceremony: Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) for Winter and Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nominations for DiCaprio and Hill, respectively. The film did not win in any category, although DiCaprio did win Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy at the 71st Golden Globe Awards, where the film was also nominated for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy. It was also recognized by numerous other awards ceremonies, as well as guilds and critics' associations.
The word "fuck" and its numerous conjugations are said between 506 and 569 times, making this the film with the most uses of the word in a mainstream, non-documentary film.
In 1987, Jordan Belfort procures a job as a Wall Street stockbroker for L.F. Rothschild, employed under Mark Hanna, who quickly entices him with the sex- and drugs-fueled stockbroker culture and teaches him that a stockbroker's only job is to make money for himself. Jordan soon finds his career terminated following Black Monday and takes a job at a boiler room brokerage firm on Long Island that specializes in penny stocks. Thanks to his aggressive pitching style and the high commissions, Jordan makes a small fortune.
Jordan befriends his neighbour, Donnie Azoff, and the two found their own company. They recruit several of Jordan's friends, whom Jordan trains in the art of the "hard sell". The basic method of the firm is a pump and dump scam. To cloak this, Jordan gives the firm the respectable-sounding name of Stratton Oakmont. After an exposé in Forbes, hundreds of ambitious young financiers flock to his company. Jordan becomes immensely successful and slides into a decadent lifestyle full of prostitutes and drugs. He has an affair with a woman named Naomi Lapaglia. When his wife finds out, they divorce, and he marries Naomi. Meanwhile, the SEC and the FBI begin investigating Stratton Oakmont. Jordan illegally makes $22 million in three hours upon securing the IPO of Steve Madden. This brings him and his firm to the attention of the FBI. To hide his money, Jordan opens a Swiss bank account with corrupt banker Jean-Jacques Saurel in the name of Naomi's Aunt Emma, who is a British national and thus outside the reach of American authorities. He uses the wife and in-laws of his friend Brad Bodnick, who have European passports, to smuggle the cash into Switzerland.
Donnie gets into a public brawl with Brad, and, while Donnie escapes, Brad is arrested. Jordan also learns from his private investigator that the FBI is wiretapping his phones. Fearing for his son, Jordan's father advises him to leave Stratton Oakmont and lie low while Jordan's lawyer negotiates a deal to keep him out of prison. Jordan, however, cannot bear to quit and talks himself into staying in the middle of his farewell speech. Jordan, Donnie, and their wives are on a yacht trip to Italy when they learn that Aunt Emma has died of a heart attack. Jordan decides to travel to Switzerland immediately to settle the bank account. In order to bypass border controls, he forces his yacht captain to sail to Monaco, but the ship is capsized in a storm. After their rescue, the plane sent to take them to Geneva is destroyed when a seagull flies into the engine. Jordan takes this as a sign from God and decides to sober up.
Two years later, the FBI arrests Jordan because Saurel, arrested in Florida on an unrelated charge, has also informed on Jordan. Since the evidence against him is overwhelming, Jordan agrees to gather evidence on his colleagues in exchange for leniency. Fed up with Jordan's lifestyle, Naomi tells Jordan she is divorcing him and wants full custody of their children. Jordan loses his mind and tries to run off with Skylar in his car, but he ends up crashing in the driveway. The next morning, Jordan wears a wire to work but slips a note to Donnie warning him. The FBI discovers the note, and Jordan is arrested for breaching his co-operation deal. The FBI raids and shuts down Stratton Oakmont. Despite this one breach, Jordan receives a reduced sentence for his testimony and serves three years in a minimum security prison. After his release, Jordan makes a living hosting seminars on sales technique.
In 2007, Leonardo DiCaprio/Warner Bros. won a bidding war against Brad Pitt/Paramount Pictures for the rights to Jordan Belfort's memoir The Wolf of Wall Street, and Martin Scorsese was considered to direct the film. During pre-production, Scorsese worked on the film's script before working on Shutter Island. He describes having "wasted five months of [his] life" without getting a green light on production dates by the Warner Bros. studio. Jordan Belfort made $1 million on the movie rights.
In 2010, Warner Bros. had offered Ridley Scott to direct the film, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the male lead, but the studio eventually dumped the project.
In 2012, a green light was given by the independent company Red Granite Pictures allowing no restrictions to the content development. Scorsese knew that there were no limits to the content that he would produce and therefore came back on board, resulting in an R rating. Red Granite Pictures also asked Paramount Pictures to distribute the film; Paramount Pictures agreed to distribute the film in North America and Japan, but passed on the rest of the international market.
The FBI has issued subpoenas to several past and present employees of Red Granite Pictures in regards to allegations that US$155 million was diverted from the Malaysian wealth fund 1MDB to help finance The Wolf of Wall Street. This relates to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal. A civil lawsuit initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice has sought to claim "any rights to profits, royalties and distribution proceeds" from The Wolf of Wall Street.
In the film, most of the real-life characters' names have been changed from Belfort's original memoir. Donnie Azoff is based on Danny Porush. The name was changed after Porush threatened to sue the filmmakers. Porush maintains that much of the film was fictional and that Donnie Azoff was not in fact an accurate depiction of him. The FBI agent known as Patrick Denham is the stand-in for real-life Gregory Coleman, and lawyer Manny Riskin is based on Ira Sorkin. Belfort's first wife Denise Lombardo is renamed Teresa Petrillo, while second wife Nadine Caridi became Naomi Lapaglia on-screen. In contrast, Mark Hanna's name remains the same as the LF Rothschild stockbroker who, like Belfort, was convicted of fraud and served time in prison. Belfort's parents Max and Leah Belfort's names remained the same for the film. The role of Aunt Emma was initially offered to Julie Andrews, who refused it as she was recovering from an ankle injury, and she was replaced by Joanna Lumley.
In January 2014, Jonah Hill revealed in an interview with Howard Stern that he made only $60,000 on the film (the lowest possible SAG-AFTRA rate for his amount of work), while his co-star Leonardo DiCaprio (who also produced) received $10 million. Hill didn't care about his settlement though, and wanted to play Donnie Azoff so badly that he was willing to do whatever it took to get the part as it was his dream to be in a Scorsese film.
Filming began on August 8, 2012, in New York. Jonah Hill announced that his first day of shooting was September 4, 2012. Filming also took place in Closter, New Jersey and Harrison, New York. In January 2013, additional scenes were shot at a set built in an abandoned office building in Ardsley, New York. Scenes at the beach house were filmed in Sands Point, New York.
Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker stated that the film would be shot digitally instead of on film. Scorsese had been a proponent of shooting on film but decided to shoot Hugo digitally because it was being photographed in 3D; however, The Wolf of Wall Street was originally planned to be shot digitally despite being filmed in 2D. Schoonmaker expressed her disappointment with the decision: "It would appear that we've lost the battle. I think Marty just feels it's unfortunately over, and there's been no bigger champion of film than him." After extensive comparison tests during pre-production, eventually the majority of the film was shot on film stock while scenes that used green screen effects or low light were shot with the digital Arri Alexa. The film contains 400–450 VFX shots.
The Wolf of Wall Street uses animals including a chimpanzee, a lion, a snake, a fish, and dogs. The chimpanzee and the lion were provided by the Big Cat Habitat wildlife sanctuary in Sarasota County, Florida. The four-year-old chimpanzee Chance spent time with actor Leonardo DiCaprio and learned to roller skate over the course of three weeks. The sanctuary also provided a lion named Handsome because the film's trading company used a lion for its symbol. Danny Porush was Jordan Belfort's real-life partner, and he denied there being any animals in the office.
In December 2013, before the film's premiere, the organization Friends of Animals criticized the use of the chimpanzee and organized a boycott of the film. Variety reported, "Friends of Animals thinks the chimp ... suffered irreversible psychological damage after being forced to act." The Guardian said, "Criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street's use of a chimpanzee arrives as Hollywood comes under ever-increasing scrutiny for its employment of animals on screen," referring to a November 2013 report in The Hollywood Reporter that was critical of the American Humane Association's treatment of animals in films. PETA also launched a campaign to highlight mistreatment of ape "actors" and to petition for DiCaprio not to work with great apes.
The Wolf of Wall Street premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City on December 17, 2013, followed by a wide release on December 25, 2013. It was previously slated to be released on November 15, 2013, but the date was pushed back after film cuts were made to reduce the run time. On October 22, 2013, it was reported that the film was set for a Christmas 2013 release. Paramount officially confirmed the Christmas Day 2013 release date on October 29, 2013, with a running time of 165 minutes. On November 25, 2013, the length was announced to be 179 minutes. It was officially rated R for "sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence". Scorsese had to edit sexual content and nudity to avoid an NC-17 rating. By different counts, the film contains between 506 and 569 uses of the word "fuck", and currently holds the record for the most uses of the word in a mainstream non-documentary film.
The film is banned in Malaysia, Nepal, Zimbabwe, and Kenya because of its scenes depicting sex, drugs and excessive use of swear words, and additional scenes have been cut in the versions playing in India. In Singapore, suburban theatres were prohibited from playing it because of its R21 rating.
The film marks a change in film history when Paramount became the first major studio to distribute movies to theaters in digital format, eliminating 35mm film entirely. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues was the last Paramount production to include a 35mm film version, while The Wolf of Wall Street was the first major movie distributed entirely digitally.
The Wolf of Wall Street grossed $116.9 million in North America and $275.1 million internationally, for a total gross of $392 million, making it Scorsese's highest-grossing film worldwide. In North America, the film opened at number five in its first weekend, with $18.4 million in 3,387 theaters, behind The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Frozen, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, and American Hustle. In Australia, it is the highest grossing R-rated film, earning $12.96 million.
According to copyright infringement tracking site Excipio, the film was the most illegally downloaded film of 2014, as it was shared over 30 million times via torrent sites.
The Wolf of Wall Street was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 25, 2014. On January 27, 2014, it was revealed that a four-hour director's cut would be attached to the home release. It was later revealed by Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures that the home release would feature only the theatrical release.
The Wolf of Wall Street received positive reviews, with critics praising DiCaprio and Hill's performances, Scorsese's direction, and Winter's screenplay. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 77% approval rating, based on 255 reviews, with an average score of 7.7/10. The site's consensus states: "Funny, self-referential, and irreverent to a fault, The Wolf of Wall Street finds Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio at their most infectiously dynamic." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 75 out of 100, based on 47 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine named The Wolf of Wall Street as the third best film of 2013, behind 12 Years a Slave and Gravity at numbers one and two, respectively. The movie was chosen as one of the top ten films of the year by the American Film Institute. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle said "it is the best and most enjoyable American film to be released this year." The Chicago Sun-Times's Richard Roeper gave the film a "B+" score, saying the film was "good, not great Scorsese".
Dana Stevens, a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, wrote that the movie did not work for her after labeling the film "Epic in size, claustrophobically narrow in scope." According to Marshall Fine of The Huffington Post the story "wants us to be interested in characters who are dull people to start with, made duller by their delusions of being interesting because they are high." Some critics viewed the movie as an irresponsible glorification rather than a satirical takedown. DiCaprio responded that in his opinion the film does not glorify the excessive lifestyle it depicts.
In 2016, the film was ranked #78 on the BBC's 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century list.
The film received a "C" rating from audiences surveyed by CinemaScore, a rating lower than anything else in theaters the opening week of the film. The Los Angeles Times argues that the film attracted conservative viewers by depicting a more moral tone in its marketing than the film itself depicted.
Christina McDowell, daughter of Tom Prousalis, who worked closely with the real-life Belfort at Stratton Oakmont, wrote an open letter addressing Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Belfort himself, criticizing the film for insufficiently portraying the victims of the financial crimes created by Stratton Oakmont, for disregarding the damage that was done to her family as a result, and for giving celebrity to persons (Belfort and his partners, including her father) who do not deserve it.
Steven Perlberg of Business Insider saw an advance screening of the film at a Regal Cinemas near the Goldman Sachs building, with an audience of financial workers. Perlberg reported cheers from the audience at all the wrong moments—"When Belfort — a drug addict attempting to remain sober — rips up a couch cushion to get to his secret coke stash, there were cheers."
The former Assistant United States Attorney who prosecuted the real Belfort criticized both the movie and the book on which it is based. He said he believes some of Belfort's claims were "invented", as for instance "[Belfort] aggrandized his importance and reverence for him by others at his firm." He strongly criticizes the film for not depicting the "thousands of [scam] victims who lost hundreds of millions of dollars," not accepting the filmmakers' argument in which that would detract attention from the wrongdoers. Furthermore, he deplores the ending—"beyond an insult" to his victims—in which the real Belfort appears, while showing "a large sign advertising the name of Mr. Belfort's real motivational speaking company," and a positive depiction of Belfort uttering "variants of the same falsehoods he trained others to use against his victims."
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Adapted Screenplay for Winter, Best Actor for DiCaprio, and Best Supporting Actor for Hill. It was also nominated for four BAFTAs, including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, and two Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. DiCaprio won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
The soundtrack to The Wolf of Wall Street features both original as well as existing music tracks, and was released on December 17, 2013 for digital download.
More than sixty songs were used in the film, but only sixteen were included on the official soundtrack. Notably, among the exceptions are original compositions by Theodore Shapiro.