“I always wanted to be rich,” rattles the voiceover of Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), inevitably recalling goodfella Henry Hill’s “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” The cacophonous trading floor spreads out before Jordan’s wide blue eyes: green numbers hurtle across bulbous screens; manic men scream into phones. “You wanna know what money sounds like? ‘Fuck this, shit that, cunt, cock, asshole’.”
Welcome to Martin Scorsese’s 22nd feature film, another of his examinations of the rites and rituals of a particular sect, be it the wiseguys of ‘70s Little Italy (Mean Streets) or the society scions of late 19th-Century New York (The Age Of Innocence).
With its rise-and-fall arc, its hedonism and hubris, its gleeful exploration of the dark side of the America Dream, its money, crime and narcs, its sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (though the soundtrack also takes in Madness, Simon & Garfunkel and a fair bit of Euro pop), The Wolf Of Wall Street forms a loose trilogy with GoodFellas and Casino. And if it can’t quite match the energy and quality of those classics, it nonetheless stands as Scorsese’s finest for 15 years.
When we first meet Jordan Belfort, he’s more pup than wolf, his lowest-rung job at L.F. Rothschild requiring him only to “smile and dial”. A first-day lunch with big boss Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, hilarious) sows the seeds of the chaos to come, though: Hanna advises him that the stock market is “all fugazi” while preaching the worthlessness of morals and the necessity of greed, cocaine and, to stay relaxed, jerking off twice daily. Then, on 19 October, 1987, the very day Jordan becomes a licensed broker, the market crashes and Rothschild goes under.
Jordan joins a penny-stocks firm in Long Island, employing a bunch of expert salesmen (mainly weed) from his old Queens neighbourhood and making Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, terrific) VP despite his phosphorescent teeth and shoulder-slung pastel sweaters.
The triumphant result is named Stratton Oakmont, and if there’s one thing these guys know how to do, besides sell, it’s party – Jordan blows $26,000 on a lunch, is married to a model, shags prostitutes five, six times a week, and hoovers Quaaludes, Xanax, cocaine and morphine. It’s only a matter of time before the FBI (in the form of Kyle Chandler) come calling…
Perhaps deciding the crazed behaviour is enough, perhaps thinking he took stylistic verve as far as it could go in GoodFellas, Scorsese shoots largely with a static camera. His use of whip pans, crash zooms, freeze frames and tracking shots proves so infrequent that Spielberg, visiting the set, suggested he might want to move the camera. But TWOWS is far from muzzled.
New collaborator Rodrigo Prieto’s busy compositions combine with old hand Thelma Schoonmaker’s confident cutting to create pace and bustle, and DiCaprio, slick as his black hair and resplendent in a flurry of sharp suits and loud ties, routinely addresses viewers down the barrel of the lens.
It is, of course, all part of Scorsese’s plan to charm viewers into accepting Belfort’s outrageously selfish, unthinkingly cruel behaviour. It works, too – more so because Terence Winter’s (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) screenplay cleaves to our anti-hero, refusing to investigate the fallout of his misdeeds as he steals from rich and poor alike to line his own pockets (and mirror). It’s a decision some will take issue with, just as some, justifiably, accuse Scorsese of being in thrall to his gangsters.
But this is Jordan’s tale, and it’s sold by a magnetic, never-better DiCaprio. “I fucked her brains out… for 11 seconds,” runs the voiceover as he collapses on top of Naomi (Margot Robbie), a beauty who is to become his trophy wife. Humour and bracing honesty go a long way towards balancing Jordan’s shockingly aggressive pursuit of ‘happiness’.
A touch too long, yet never slack, at three hours, TWOWS benefits from independent funding, Scorsese’s brass balls and an A-grade cast’s turbulent improvisations to emerge as an epic, boldly broad screwball comedy about the state of America, then and now.
Despite the US censors trimming back the screwing and swearing, this is an audacious, riotous epic. Scorsese and DiCaprio’s fifth and best pairing, it’s liable to give the Academy a heart attack.