Director Martin Scorsese is arguably best known for his Mafia films, where often penniless youths become made men, get rich, and then try to escape the law. The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s fifth film collaboration with star Leonardo DiCaprio, is not a Mafia film, but it sure feels like one, and it’s as good as or better than most of the others.
The story is based on the autobiography of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who made and lost a fortune in the 80s and 90s by creating his own mob of sorts – a trading firm that violated all kinds of SEC regulations and federal laws to line the pockets of he and his partners. Washing out of high-end trading on his first day as a broker, Belfort (DiCaprio) retreats to the world of penny stocks, where he learns the commissions on trades are much higher. Seeing an opportunity, he gathers together a motley group of salesmen, starts his own firm and begins selling junk companies to rich people. Before long, Belfort’s reputation as a wild man attracts dozens more brokers, all of whom get caught up in a crazy mix of sex, drugs, and pursuit of the almighty dollar. If Belfort is the “Wolf”, as Forbes magazine calls him, his brokers are his pack, right down to the howling.
Belfort also attracts the attention of the FBI, who quietly begin building a case against him. In the meantime, as Belfort’s fortune increases, his rampant drug use and loose ideas on monogamy take their toll on one marriage, and then another. But it’s when he starts trying to hide his money from the feds that things really start to turn for the worst.
Wolf shares all the attributes of classic Scorsese films like Goodfellas and (even more closely) Casino – first-person narration, crazy and unstable associates, troubled marital relations, trophy wives (Margot Robbie is a standout here as Naomi), and an exploration of the inner workings of business both legal and illegal. It also has the same rhythms of those films. But for a relative lack of blood, and the fact that the only deaths here occur from natural causes, it could be another mob film. The screenplay is even written by Terence Winter, well known from TV’s The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire.
But where the violence is mostly missing, it’s replaced by extensive amounts of drug use and sex. Scorsese and DiCaprio secured independent financing to make this film, and the lack of studio intervention has allowed them to show full-on the excesses of the 80s fast life. From mounds of cocaine and pills to office orgies, not much is left to the imagination.
And there’s another significant difference: humour, and lots of it. I can’t recall seeing a Scorsese movie that made me laugh this much. That’s partly due to a significant amount of improvised dialogue, particularly by Jonah Hill as Donny Azoff, Belfort’s friend and number two, but there are other inspired moments. In a scene where an overdosed Belfort crawls down a set of steps to reach his car, DiCaprio shows an amazing gift for physical comedy.
The rest of his performance is equally amazing. It’s an exhausting role, as Belfort screams and grimaces to pump his team up, then diverts that energy toward chasing prostitutes and snorting coke, but DiCaprio always fits the part. The supporting cast are also fantastic – Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley, and Matthew McConaughey (in an outstanding cameo) are all particularly memorable.
Scorsese is not to everyone’s taste, and The Wolf of Wall Street sometimes pushes its limits too far (especially in its three hour running time), but like the life of its protagonist, it’s a hell of a ride.
Tags: movie review