For over a decade there has been a sense of déjà vu with Scorsese’s films: his latest arrives on a fifty storey tidal wave of hype, critics hailing it as easily as good as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but this is never the case. Gangs of New York, The Aviator, even The Departed: all solid entries on the director’s peerless CV, but nothing that comes close to his early days. The Wolf of Wall Street feels like the first film in a long time that breathes the same air as the masterpieces that made Scorsese’s name.
The problem with Scorsese’s most recent films is that they don’t feel like Scorsese is behind the camera, that he is going out of his way to win awards. With The Departed it was as if Scorsese was doing his best Tarantino impression rather than make another Scorsese picture. The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese back to his playful, rule-breaking self, setting up scenes that you think will go one way, then veer off in the opposite direction. It’s three chaotic hours of virtually scene-for-scene sex, drugs and ticking off every foul-mouthed word in the English language. It’s also one of the strongest scripts that Scorsese has brought to the screen.
Like Henry Hill in GoodFellas, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is loathsome and morally bankrupt. In Wolf’s opening scenes we are introduced to the man and his lifestyle (all swiftly cut together by Scorsese’s long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker). He is arrogant, egotistical and unrepentant. Screenwriter Terence Winter does not soften the film’s protagonist: this is the man that you are going to spend the next three hours with, like it or not. It is to both Winter and DiCaprio’s credit that we do not walk out within the first ten minutes. We may not like Belfort, but we want to see him rise as well as, inevitably, fall.
Belfort is arguably DiCarprio’s best performance. Scorsese has nurtured DiCaprio since they first worked together on Gangs of New York, and if DiCaprio’s role as Amsterdam Vallon felt safe, that at no point was he really challenged as an actor, then with The Wolf of Wall Street DiCaprio is given a sandpit to play in and do whatever the hell he likes. He gets to do intense, showman-like speeches as Belfort fires up his employees at Stratton Oakmont, deliver razor-sharp, irreverent voiceovers, and gives us a master class in slapstick comedy (it’s only January and Wolf has already given us one of the stand-out set pieces of 2014, when Belfort, drugged up to his eyeballs, attempts to crawl back into his car).
The Wolf of Wall Street is very much a film of two halves; Belfort’s rise and fall. In the first half DiCaprio is fast talking, impassioned, every facial muscle getting used. Belfort may make his money by stealing it from everyone else, a “Twisted Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself and his merry band of brokers” as Forbes once described him, but you cannot take your eyes off the man while he’s doing it. As with so many rich and powerful men, ego gets the better of Belfort and DiCaprio delivers the flip side of the wild performance he gives early on. As the FBI and FCC cut Belfort down to size, DiCaprio becomes far more restrained. He is hunched up, exhausted, speaking softly and slowly. There are moments where we glimpse the fierce, take no prisoners Belfort, but he is a different man now, having everything he strived to build taken away from him. Few actors are as versatile and even fewer are as convincing. So much of what makes The Wolf of Wall Street such an outstanding film is down to DiCaprio.
Another actor giving everything and then that little bit more is Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s protégé and literal partner in crime. Hill has been great to watch ever since he first appeared in Superbad. Here he transforms from a man who envies Belfort, to becoming Belfort’s shadow. Like DiCaprio, not only does Hill get to fire smart one-liners and deliver priceless moments of physical comedy, but he can also, impressively, be both subtle and moving. When Azoff realises that Belfort is working as an informant for the FBI, he is reduced to silence, choking back tears. It is heartbreaking to watch and once again confirms that Hill is far more than a comedy actor.
While The Wolf of Wall Street could be otherwise known as The Leonardo DiCaprio Show, the film has plenty of cameos. Most films struggle to have one memorable supporting role, Wolf has several. Best of the bunch is Matthew McConaughey as Belfort’s mentor Mark Hanna. Everything that McConaughey says or does is brilliantly funny; you wonder how much of his performance is derived from the script and how much did he come up with on the spot. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin appears as a slimy banker, almost permanently wearing a devious smile and, while dressed in sharp suits and giving an air of sophistication, is just as grubby as Belfort. Joanna Lumley makes a surprise appearance as Naomi’s (Margot Robbie) English aunt; a scene involving Belfort flirting with her being both comical and awkward to watch.
The majority of Scorsese’s films are dotted with pitch black humour, yet The Wolf of Wall Street feels like Scorsese’s first real attempt at comedy. Considering the film is three hours long, you will be laughing for much of its running time. Wolf’s 180 minutes are not constant laughter, however, Terence Winter has also written a number of powerful, eye-opening scenes. One of the film’s many set pieces is when Belfort and his nemesis, FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) meet for the first time. Offering Denham plenty of fine food and wine, as well as sneakily trying to bribe him, you think that Belfort has got away with it. This is merely an act from Denham who makes it all too clear to Belfort that he is after him. For the majority of this scene Belfort has been the one in control, leading Denham on a merry dance, when it has been Denham all along who has been playing the multi-millionaire.
When the FBI start picking away at Belfort, threatening him with court appearances and decades in prison, it is a Wizard of Oz moment as the curtain is pulled back, revealing a repulsive man behind the money and the style, his wife Naomi bearing the brunt of his temper and out of control drug taking. This could have been a cynical way to justify how, for much of the film, Belfort is portrayed as a messiah figure; the villain of the piece finally getting his comeuppance. Everyone watching The Wall of Wall Street is waiting for things to turn sour for Belfort and they do so in spectacular style, but Winter does this in a way that feels satisfying rather than pretentious.
Many critics have questioned the morals of The Wolf of Wall Street, or, as they see it, the lack of them. I’m going to back very slowly away from the debate over Martin Scorsese’s films being explicitly violent or sexist, but what I will point out with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is based on the life of Jordan Belfort, a man for whom excess was his everyday life. Imagine the outcry from those same critics if Scorsese toned down Belfort’s exploits, there would be plenty of reviews out there all repeating the words “let down”, “a waste”, and “a cynical attempt to win another Best Director award”.
Does Belfort get the punishment he deserves? I don’t think it spoils the film by saying no, not exactly. This is one of the many reasons why critics feel that the film celebrates greed, which is not true at all. At no point does Scorsese judge Belfort; instead he shows us the world we live in, that is on the front page of the tabloids almost every day. People like Belfort have been allowed to exploit their way to wealth and power, which begs the question, just who is the real villain here?
The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese back to his very best, throwing all sorts of original and insane ideas at the screen. Under any other director this could have been a painful, even embarrassing three hours, but Scorsese’s confident direction keeps the film utterly focused and at no point does it flag. Updating the gangsters and hustlers of his earlier films to the three-thousand dollar suit wearing stockbrokers, Scorsese gives us a near-perfect study of this world, these apparently respectable people cutting corners and getting rich the easy way.
It may take several years, but The Wolf of Wall Street will be ranked up there with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and GoodFellas as one of Scorsese’s most celebrated films.
5 out of 5