Besides the fact that it stars Leonardo DiCaprio and that it’s essentially a white collar gloss on Goodfellas, you’d be forgiven for thinking somebody other than Martin Scorsese directed The Wolf of Wall Street. I don’t mean to suggest Scorsese has lost his masterful touch or his passion for filmmaking, both of which were on display as recently as two years ago in the wonderful Hugo. It’s more that after spending the better part of the 21st century making strong, serious dramas, I didn’t necessarily expect Scorsese to make his funniest, loosest and most audacious picture in decades.
“I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich.”
If that sounds like overly blunt, motivational mumbo jumbo, you’re not too far off. The Wolf of Wall Street is based on a memoir by Jordan Belfort, who currently makes his living as a motivational speaker and author. The film takes us back to the days just before the Stock Market Crash of 1987 and chronicles his lucrative, hard-partying days as the founder of Stratton Oakmont, which dealt in undesirable penny stocks and defrauded its investors. (Think Boiler Room.)
I know I used the phrase “hard-partying days” in the previous paragraph, but I still feel like I’m underselling the level of debauchery depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street. Before the movie takes on a more chronological structure, we briefly meet Jordan (DiCaprio) at the point of his life where he’s achieved everything he’s ever wanted. Through some wicked, zippy voiceover narration, we also learn he loves drugs. Whether they’re making his back feel better, or he’s snorting them off whatever surface/body part is available to him, Jordan can’t get enough. That “more, More, MORE!” attitude spills over from the story and douses everything about The Wolf of Wall Street, including its supersize cast of characters and its 179-minute running time. (The four-hour version of Wolf officially joins the fabled four-hour cut of Gangs of New York in film lore.)
Naturally, the drug that really excites Jordan is money. He plagiarizes his shameless “more is more” philosophy from his first boss (Matthew McConaughey in what amounts to a great extended cameo), and recruits some streetwise friends (including The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) to help him get back on his feet after the crash. Jonah Hill wanders into the movie (and into Jordan’s life) as unstable wannabe Donnie Azoff. (Other than Belfort, most of the names have been changed to protect the
innocent litigious.) The acerbic script by Boardwalk Empire honcho Terence Winter is callous enough to compare the desirability of hookers to that of stocks. It also doesn’t shy away from the idea that the promise of a quick fortune holds the same allure for these despicable swindlers as it does for the otherwise hard-working saps they’re ripping off. In other words, money has a way of bringing out the Donnie Azoff (unstable wannabe) in a lot of us.
Of course, the uproariously funny Wolf script breezes right past that sort of buzzkilling idea whenever it creeps into the story. (Jordan’s self-absorbed narration barely slows down long enough to acknowledge a partner’s suicide or a close associate’s heart attack.) Some eyebrows were raised when the Golden Globes slotted The Wolf of Wall Street into its “Comedy or Musical” category. However, the film’s energy comes from the way it manically remixes Scorsese’s filmography (particularly Goodfellas and Casino) into a grand farce. The crooks in Wolf may not blow up cars or stab/shoot people in car trunks, but Scorsese is still telling an organized crime story.
You might say this is overly familiar ground for Scorsese, but why should Robert DeNiro be the only one allowed to revisit a classic Scorsese film this Christmas? (Heck, Wolf even has a randomly lavish set piece that vaguely reminded me of the watery finale in his Cape Fear remake.) You’d also be missing the fact that Scorsese hasn’t worked with this much unrestrained verve in a long time. Most of The Wolf of Wall Street plays out like the kind of gonzo films Oliver Stone made after the relatively straightforward Wall Street. (The slimy buffoons in this movie will make you want to run and hand all your money to an upstanding guy like Gordon Gekko.) The highlight is a mind-bending sequence when Jordan takes a potent Quaalude and enters a “cerebral palsy” phase. Scorsese and his legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker allow this sequence — and several others in the film — to go on for a luxuriously extended period of time. (Remember…more, More, MORE!) Although it’s not nearly as noticeable as it is in the exquisite work David O. Russell did with the 1970s in American Hustle, Scorsese expertly captures the antic, hedonistic vibe (as well as the big suits and occasionally garish ties) of Wolf’s late ‘80s/’90s setting.
I suspect some of the riffs from the cast could’ve been trimmed down, but I also get the sense Scorsese was inspired by the live-wire work he was getting from his leading man and the rest of the actors. Simply put, DiCaprio has never been more exciting. Since Titanic, he has mostly targeted adult dramas made by interesting directors while avoiding any sort of franchise film. That also means we haven’t exactly seen him have a lot of fun on-screen. If last year’s Django Unchained was DiCaprio taking a walk on the cinematic wild side, then Wolf is him getting a running head start and jumping in head first. More than once, Jordan wanders around in a druggy haze and absent-mindedly fondles a woman’s chest or pats a guy on the backside; it’s as if DiCaprio himself is allowing himself to feel these things for the first time as an actor.
Although they tend to run a bit long, some of the best scenes in Wolf are two-person acting duets that feature DiCaprio partnering with Hill (who continues to be a revelation as comedic actor with a dramatic edge), Kyle Chandler’s ultra-principled FBI agent (canny casting after Chandler played the ultra-principled football coach on Friday Night Lights) or Margot Robbie (in a head-turning performance) as Jordan’s second wife. (Jordan is a lousy husband, but the film establishes that neither of his wives are what you’d call sheep.) Scorsese also sprinkles in actor/directors like Rob Reiner (funny as Jordan’s hot-head dad), Jon Favreau (underused as Jordan’s lawyer) and Spike Jonze (thoroughly amusing as an early admirer of Jordan’s) into the cast, which isn’t surprising since Marty himself occasionally hops in front of the camera.
There are several instances in The Wolf of Wall Street where it looks like the chickens are going to come home to roost for Jordan and Co. By sticking it out each time, both Jordan and the film itself threaten to stay at the party for too long. The tricky mix of exhilaration, emotional emptiness and exhaustion one feels at the end of a wild ride like Jordan’s is tough to pull off. But, in Scorsese’s hands, “we’re in first class.”