At the time of writing Martin Scorsese is 71 years old. Not that you’d know it from watching his latest film – his twenty-somethingth feature – which careers out of the gate at top speed and barely pauses for breath once in its entire 180 minutes. After the delightful yet stuffy prestige puff-piece Hugo, one would’ve been forgiven for thinking that the ol’ devil had little blood left to boil. Hugo felt almost like a curtain call. The Wolf Of Wall Street says otherwise. This is fiery, invigorating filmmaking that recalls the do-or-die grandstanding of, say, Paul Thomas Anderson when he thrust Boogie Nights at us. Scorsese’s picture yells, “Look at me! Look at me!”. It’s a bolshy, rambunctious piece of work.
That strutting tone is wholly appropriate for the subject matter. The Wolf Of Wall Street is adapted from stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s own memoir and charts the ruthless, drug-addled ego maniac’s rise and fall as one of New York’s most incorrigible swindlers. Conning the richest 1% into throwing thousands, even millions of dollars at worthless stock and reaping the commission, Belfort amassed a fortune that only ever seemed to grow.
His entire enterprise from the ground up relied on the ability to talk the talk and walk the walk. Get the swagger right, put enough confidence in your bullshit, and you’re home free. Scorsese has his film run on the same rainbow dust. It’s a magic trick to get you on a high, one presented so successfully that it’s hard not to get swept along. The Wolf Of Wall Street is an amoral romp. A salacious celebration of excess.
And what excess. Putting even the exploits of Jerry Della Femina’s mad-Manhattan in the shade, Belfort and his co-workers lived lives permanently punctuated by cocaine and prostitutes, outrageous office parties and mid-air orgies. Scorsese’s restless camera shows us all with gleeful gratuity. Profanities fly like popping champagne corks and not a thought is spared for the victims of Belfort’s rogue trading.
That the ramifications of Belfort’s actions are barely ever addressed is fitting, as this is a story told from the perspective of a man with no concern for anyone. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Belfort cannot be trusted, and Terence Winter’s canny script frequently pulls the rug out from under us, revealing that we’ve been lied to. Belfort is that wolf of the title; you’d be a fool to trust him. Fortunately there’s enough charisma in both DiCaprio’s performance and Scorsese’s handling of the material for you to give them a pass… up to a point.
A frequent flyer with Scorsese airlines, this is by far DiCaprio most effortless yet impressive appearance on screen yet. While the story might make one imagine a more exaggerated iteration of the cheeky scamster he played for Spielberg in Catch Me If You Can, DiCaprio more immediately calls to mind the great physicality of Jack Nicholson at his best. His Belfort is full-throated and utterly convincing. DiCaprio strides through the movie like a man possessed. It’s pure showmanship, as it should be.
Belfort’s most significant partner in crime is the improbable Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, running with the meatier roles afforded him post-Moneyball), a roaring cannonball who only encourages Belfort’s worst impulses. Jonah Hill’s casting ought to key prospective viewers further into the madcap tone Scorsese applies here. The Wolf Of Wall Street is frequently hilarious.
Comedy is not a genre immediately associated with Scorsese, largely because his dramatic pictures have overshadowed (sometimes unfairly) his funnier ones. But this is a man, after all, who made a film called The King Of Comedy. TWOWS sees the celebrated director tapping into the same streak of dirty, malicious humour and with great success. It also affords DiCaprio the opportunity to flaunt his talents further. There’s a scene where Belfort tries to leave a country club under the influence of… well… you’ll see. It’s a belly laugh inducing set-piece.
As Scorsese’s movie winks at its audience with playful gimmicks and DiCaprio’s charming narration (occasionally pitched direct to camera), it also showers us with easter-egg casting choices. Particularly appearances from other famous directors. Rob Reiner stars as Belfort’s booming father, Jon Favreau makes up the numbers as one of his shrewd advisers. Most surprising of all is director of Being John Malkovich and the eagerly anticipated Her, Spike Jonze, in an early appearance as a small-scale broker. Cineastes will have fun marking them off on imaginary bingo cards. And praise too for Matthew McConaughey, whose small role as the broker who schools Belfort in his ethos leaves an indelible mark on the movie that follows.
It can’t all be fun and frivolity, however. As Belfort’s empire unravels, so the comedown hits, and the film’s last half hour suffers the inevitable crash. After all that guiltless comedy, scenes of domestic violence suddenly feel particularly jarring. We’re reminded that, like these Wall Street criminals, we’ve been enjoying ourselves at the expense of others. Like Belfort’s fall from grace, such sobering moments hardly prove fatal, and the overall film remains, in all it’s shamelessness, remarkably robust.
180 minutes is a long time. Many have said it flies by. I wouldn’t go that far. There is a sense of unruly sprawl here. The saving grave is that, in this instance, that’s entirely fitting. Gratuity is the order of the day, and that Scorsese has managed to make a success out of it is a wonderfully indulgent thing, even if, personally speaking, Jonah Hill does start to grate from about the midway point onward. Regardless, The Wolf Of Wall Street should serve as a reminder to the auteurs half Scorsese’s age that he’ll not be put out to pasture just yet. And there’s certainly no shame in that.