Just as his 1990 masterpiece GoodFellas began with a scene in which Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill takes part in a particularly excessive murder before flashing back (via voiceover) to trace his rise through the ranks of the mafia, Martin Scorsese’s newest epic, The Wolf of Wall Street begins opens with his suited stockbrokers engaging in a bit of, ahem, ‘dwarf tossing’ in their office, then utilises a similar technique to take us back to the start of the story. Scorsese’s already made one companion piece to GoodFellas, 1995’s Casino, and although he made a triumphant return to the gangster genre in 2006 with The Departed (an excellent film but structurally quite different), it’s The Wolf of Wall Street that feels like a fitting third entry to the unofficial trilogy. Esteemed company to be sure, but Wolf deserves to be there.
The aforementioned propulsion of little people isn’t close to the worst of what Jordon Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets up to at the height of his success, and moments later, as he describes his lifestyle, he’s glimpsed engaging in a sex and drugs combination that’s almost certainly never been observed in a mainstream film before. After this stark introduction, Scorsese takes us back to 1987, when he was a respectable, married 22 year old aspiring stockbroker who’d just scored a low level job with a Wall Street firm (DiCaprio, almost 40, still looks as though he didn’t need any make-up to appear 22). Making a good impression, he’s taken out to lunch by his boss, played by Matthew McConaughey in a show-stopping cameo performance. In one short meeting, he sows the seeds for the lifestyle Jordon will later adopt (hint: greed, sex, alcohol, cocaine). McConaughey makes a substantial impression that lingers over the rest of the film, and it’s interesting to see him and DiCaprio working together now in such a manner. Their careers both started off promisingly in the nineties, but after hitting the big time, DiCaprio pursued challenging roles and gained respect, while McConaughey was happy to wallow in rom-com rubbish. Now, in just two short years, McConaughey’s turned his whole career around and become one of the most interesting actors in Hollywood, in a kind of expedited take on DiCaprio’s original route.
Belfort’s initial time as a stockbroker doesn’t last long; as the market dries up he’s left seeking new employment, ending up at a small Long Island firm. He quickly sees an opportunity to make serious money using his considerable sales skills (i.e. flat out lying), and soon rejuvenates the whole place. Not long afterward, he hooks up with neighbour Donnie (Jonah Hill), and a group of men he knows, all of whom are drug dealers, to start a firm of his own.
Working from a screenplay adapted by Sopranos/Boardwalk Empire writer Terrence Winter, this kind of epic rise-to-power narrative is the type of story Scorsese can handle better than anyone else, he guides us along Belfort’s climb to success with the same relentless energy he’s kept up for decades, utilising, slow-motion, voice-over and fourth-wall breaking speeches to camera to enhance these masterfully shot and edited sequences for maximum involvement. He expectedly gets some great soundtrack choices in too, though not quite as prominently as he has in the past, avoiding the opportunity to turn it into an early-nineties musical nostalgia fest.
“Was all this legal?” Belfort asks the audience at one point, “Absolutely not!” Belfort and his cohorts are not gangsters in the traditional sense, they don’t have people killed and aren’t affiliated with any mob, but they’re still criminals, who spend their time essentially stealing from investors. Their money laundering schemes heavily resemble organised crime, and Wolf often feels like a proper gangster movie as a result. Indeed it’s quite something that these scumbag characters are among the most repugnant Scorsese has featured, considering that they’re not violent murderers.
One aspect that really differentiates The Wolf of Wall Street though, is its humour. This film is often riotously funny, and from nearly all quarters, they haven’t hired Jonah Hill just to be a comedy sidekick or anything, there are dark laughs from the depravity, along with sharply scripted one-liners, and even physical comedy. Scorsese balances the tone perfectly, with the comedy never undermining the serious moments (which can be quite so), and vice-versa.
One of the film’s most memorable comic sequences is performed by the usually serious DiCaprio almost entirely solo, after he takes a particularly potent Quaalude pill. It’s a hysterical sight to behold, and unlike anything DiCaprio’s done before. He absolutely nails is, really, he should do a full-on comedy role at some point. It’s a fairly fearless performance all-round from DiCaprio actually, after doing his first disappointing work in years with The Great Gatsby (a film with some thematic similarities), he’s bounced right back with a career best turn here (he’s also a producer and had been trying to get the film made for several years).
The Wolf of Wall Street has already had some vocal detractors, feeling that it in some way ‘glorifies’ the behaviour of Belfort and co. Scorsese doesn’t shy away from the debauchery at all, but doesn’t linger on it either, the party scenes are all fairly brief but get their point across. The fact that the film can get some people so worked up by reflecting the realities of the consequences to Belfort’s story only serves to make it be more important in my eyes.
The Wolf of Wall Street is bravura experience from a filmmaker who’s still at the top of his game after almost fifty years in the business. It runs at three hours in length, and they just fly by. It’s a magnificently made cautionary tale of greed and excess, and another essential entry into the filmography of one of the world’s greatest directors.