Dir: Martin Scorsese • Wri: Terence Winter • Pro: Riza Aziz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joey McFarland, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff • DOP: Rodrigo Prieto • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Bob Shaw • CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie
Having not too long ago celebrated his 71st birthday, it is obvious to any observer that Martin Scorsese’s love affair with cinema is still as all consuming as ever. His last film Hugo was an extravagant tribute to cinema itself: a compelling ode to the creatives, aesthetics and imagination of early cinema. Meanwhile, his continued patronage of projects like the World Cinema Foundation – dedicated to restoring and preserving films from countries without the resources or culture to do so themselves – further indicate his amour du cinéma. We the viewer luckily reap some of the benefits of this: Masters of Cinema and Criterion have started releasing gorgeous Blu-Ray boxsets of the Foundation’s preservation projects, Scorsese himself appearing on camera to introduce each of the films.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not as ‘literally’ the work of a cinephile as Hugo or the WCF, but it is unmistakably the product of a veteran director still madly, deeply infatuated with cinematic form. It radiates energy and enthusiasm, and is as lively and committed as anything he’s ever made over a nearly half-century long career. It is a welcome revisit to many of the stylistic and storytelling techniques that have defined many of his most beloved works, but also a fresh and ambitious project that differs significantly from the films we writers are obliged to compare it to (Casino and Goodfellas, if you’re wondering). It’s also incredibly funny.
The film is “based on a true story”, specifically that of Jordan Belfort – once dubbed the eponymous Wolf in a Forbes profile. As you can tell by the strategically placed quotation marks, the ‘truth’ is merely a launching point, but more on that shortly. First, the basics.
Belfort (Leonardo di Caprio) is a young, enthusiastic stockbroker, who unluckily earns his full broker’s license right around the time of the 1987 economic meltdown. After a brief period of unemployment, he winds up in a rundown brokers’ office offloading junk stocks to people barely able to afford their bills in the first place. He proves to have a knack for the work, and soon opens up a new firm exclusively trading in these rubbish but extremely profitable ‘penny stocks’. The work isn’t necessarily regulated or even legal in the traditional sense, but soon Belfort has started his own firm and trained a ragtag group to sell these rubbish shares over the phone. Soon, the company – named Stratton Oakmont – has exploded in size and popularity, moving to swank new high-rise offices and employing dozens of staff, with more begging to be hired. Belfort and his inner circle, meanwhile, are earning almost a million dollars a week, and spending much of it on mountains of quaaludes, prostitutes, private helicopters, alcohol, marching bands and hired dwarves (who they use as human darts). Naturally, this high life starts to take something of a toll on Belfort, all while FBI agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) starts investigating the company’s unusual practices.
The basics and even most of the specifics of The Wolf of Wall Street conform with Belfort’s own recollections, published in his memoirs of the same name. Scorsese, though, has opted to bring the situations and characters to life in a wild, cartoonish manner. Take it as a serious deconstruction of financial corruption and you’re in for a fall. The greed, the arrogance, the rudeness, and the reckless abandon of the Stratton Oakmont crew are merrily overblown, the film achieving a thoroughly entertaining hybrid of fact and comic exaggeration – well, I hope it’s exaggerated anyway, as you can never quite tell with those reckless financiers. The film manages to be a lightly damning critique of economic and social corruption (timely, considering recent financial shenanigans) but first and foremost it’s a madcap black comedy.
A wonderful comedy it is too, likely to offer the game audience member plenty of belly laughs. One late film setpiece plays out something like Buster Keaton meets Hunter S. Thompson: an inspired and very un-PC sequence of drug-addled slapstick. Scorsese, it goes without saying, directs this with the fervour of a true auteur – perhaps not the most distinctive film he’s made stylistically speaking, but still propelled by inspired musical choices, bold voiceover work, kinetic camera movements and a general structural playfulness (such as the fake television ads planted throughout the film). Thelma Schoonmaker – almost certainly the most important collaborator of Scorsese’s – expertly patches the chaos together, and with the exception of some minor lulls the 180 minute runtime whizzes by. In terms of its overall pace, style and structure it resembles – those names again! – Goodfellas and Casino, but is also very much its own beast.
DiCaprio, meanwhile, earns our undivided attention. The film, I must point out, offers a strong ensemble cast – notably a sultry Margot Robbie as Belfort’s second wife and Matthew McConaughey’s committed extended cameo as Jordan’s wall street mentor (Jonah Hill, by the way, is fine: not exactly offering a whole lot we haven’t seen from him before, but acting as something of a useful comic foil for DiCaprio). The lead, though, is a force of nature. DiCaprio paints Belfort as a charismatic asshole, the performance growing in complexity as drug addiction and other excesses take their toll. He’s smug and often insufferable: occasionally he even shatters through the fourth wall to shamelessly talk down to the audience. But DiCaprio also manages to portray how Belfort manage to stir up such loyalty among his supporters – during several intense motivational speeches to his staff, you’d almost be forgiven for briefly buying into his twisted, exploitative ideologies and practices. He also has a strange but fragile loyalty about him, explored intriguingly in the film’s second half. Scorsese forces Belfort through some crazy comic ordeals, but in DiCaprio’s hands he’s an individual with depth.
Any negatives worth noting? Well, one could argue certain sections feel repetitious, and there are perhaps moments of sluggishness (appropriate, maybe, given the increasingly grueling drug addictions experienced by the characters). Many moments are pitched extremely broad, with some scenes ending up feeling flatter than others. And these thoughts could lead to the question of how much depth there really is underneath the vibrant surface. Quibbles, these are. The Wolf of Wall Street is a refreshingly raw and vibrant Scorsese joint: a film that serves as a warm reminder of many of his most iconic directorial trademarks, as well as bringing plenty of new tricks to the table. It’s a wild ride and as funny as anything you’re likely to see in the cinema over the coming year. Martin Scorsese might have spent the last few years asking us to look back at cinema history with him, but on the strength of The Wolf of Wall Street we should all be greatly enthused about his present and future too.
18 (See IFCO for details)
The Wolf of Wall Street is released on 17th January 2014