For a film about financial excess, it’s apt that The Wolf Of Wall Street has become the most bankable film of Martin Scorsese’s career. Worldwide, it has earned nearly $100m more than nearest rival Shutter Island; in the UK, it is now the highest-grossing 18-certificate film of all time. Scorsese and star/co-producer Leonardo DiCaprio speculated; the film accumulated.
Such popularity is jarring considering the subject matter: an unchecked study of unchecked greed spilling into crime, addiction and midget-tossing. In an era where the ethics of banking face endless criticism, would audiences want to watch real-life bad boy Jordan Belfont get rich via the systematic swindling of ordinary Joes?
Indeed, the film proved controversial, with some critics accusing Scorsese of a glib, unquestioning celebration of Belfont’s lifestyle. Audiences had no such qualms and enjoyed the vicarious thrill ride, recognising Jon Favreau’s observation (in accompanying featurette The Wolf Pack) that Scorsese’s film was simultaneously an aspirational tale and a cautionary one. Marty avoids moral judgement to depict events from the characters’ own viewpoint, noting (in featurette Running Wild) that “this is what they learned from the people around them”.
The result is wild, loose, liberated: a comedy that resembles GoodFellas (albeit making Scorsese’s wiseguys look like monks) crossed with The Hangover. Yet – done so subtly that neither the easily outraged nor the eagerly pleased noticed – the film is also riven with spiritual weariness. If New York is the city that never sleeps, that’s only because Belfont and co. have zombiefied themselves through drugs. “They did have a lot of fun – more fun and more on top of that until it wasn’t so much fun,” reckons Scorsese.
What’s most gratifying is that Scorsese hasn’t compromised to portray this world. While much of his recent output has met the mainstream halfway, this is Scorsese returning to his roots, trusting to his instincts, not giving a fuck. Despite the bedrock of Terence Winter’s screenplay, which turns Belfont’s anecdotal memoir into an exaggerated rise-and-fall saga, the emphasis is on improv.
It shows: the three-hour, “let’s see where this takes us” running time mirrors the characters’ unregulated antics. During the second week of filming, DiCaprio clocked Matthew McConaughey beating his chest in a pre-shoot ritual; it was quickly worked into the story, becoming Belfont’s own mantra. “That opened the movie for us,” admits Scorsese.
Then there’s the already-legendary sequence in which Belfont and cohort Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) take potent Lemmons Quaaludes. Every beat was workshopped to maximise the laughs, until it became – in DiCaprio’s words – “almost like a composite short film.” But so much of the whirlwind, episodic plotting feels like that, from Belfont building his sales team (a masterclass in intercutting) to the European money-laundering adventure with Jean Dujardin. It’s a big film made of smaller films, smashed together through sheer bravado.
The biggest collision, though, occurs between two major Scorsese preoccupations. The director has long mapped out the subcultures that give the Big Apple its flavour, so tackling Wall Street was an inevitable stop on the anthropological tour. Yet there’s Scorsese’s other New York, full of loners and psychos trying to make it there because... well, you’ve heard the song. Belfont joins Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin in feeling life owes him something more; what’s worrying here is that everybody shares that view.
As in GoodFellas and Casino, we’re in the heads of some unpalatable people, but compared to the earlier films’ kinetic flourishes and ferocious violence, the emphasis here is on talk. The epic duration is partly because Belfont can’t shut up; the film itself is an exercise in sales patter. Often, DiCaprio is seated, seducing through psychology and charm, Scorsese’s subtly shifting set-ups serving to mimic Belfont’s targets leaning in, eager to hear more.
Forget sinuous camera moves or whiplash editing; Scorsese’s primary asset is a performance by DiCaprio that finally unlocks the versatility the director intuited over a decade ago. The star is seismic here, his still boyish looks enabling a convincing transformation from ingénue to demagogue, evangelising at money’s altar – a deranged parody of religion from one of the few living filmmakers who understands the real thing. De Niro could never have been this extrovert; DiCaprio’s go-getting physicality and bouncing-ball energy galvanise the film. He’s surrounded by enormous strength in depth.
Any other film, we’d be raving about Rob Reiner’s spluttering indignation, but special mention is due Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, effectively replicating Casino’s central dynamic. Hill puts a geek spin on Joe Pesci that replaces rage with hedonism, while Robbie offers the physical presence of Sharon Stone in her prime and a sharp-tongued riposte to Belfont’s smug bullshit. On-screen and off, everybody is having a ball.
In the extras (two featurettes and a round table interview with Scorsese, DiCaprio, Hill and Winter) the enthusiasm is palpable. Ultimately, that’s why TWOWS has been such a hit. In past movies, Scorsese worked hard to explain the inner workings of his cliques; here, whenever Belfont tries to teach his tricks, he gives up with a cocky grin, figuring we’re only interested in the pill popping, helicopter crashing and shagging on beds of banknotes. Scorsese dares to follow his lead, delivering fun and more on top; and for us, unlike Belfont, the fun never ends.
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