Martin Scorsese’s new film, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is the closest direct successor to the director’s two ’90s crime epics, “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” that Scorsese has made since. It’s a rise-and-fall story, inside a sin-based criminal industry, with cocaine and sex playing a big part, along with lots of voice-overs explaining “how stuff works.” The difference is, this time the highs are much higher and the fall is much more brutal.
Overall, it’s extremely audacious and also extremely great. David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” a second-hand knockoff of this sort of movie, has been collecting undeserved critics awards and Oscar buzz for the last several weeks. “Wolf of Wall Street” is the real thing, and it’s the better film by a significant degree.
Adapted from the protagonist’s memoir by screenwriter and Boardwalk Empire creator Terrence Winter, ‘Wolf’ tells the (presumably) true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Bronx boy who made tens of millions of dollars in the penny-stock game throughout the ’90s through a combination of expert salesmanship, insider trading, international money laundering and old-fashioned outright fraud.
Belfort starts out in a traditional Wall Street firm, where he’s first trained in the ways of stock manipulation and ripping off clients by Matthew McConaughey, in a highly entertaining ten-minute cameo in which he’s wearing one of Patrick Bateman’s old suits. Forced out by the crash of ’87, he ends up in a shady, strip mall-based chop shop, sort of like the one in the 2000 movie “Boiler Room” (a movie also based, loosely, on Belfort’s story.)
He later takes a group of his blue-collar buddies, led by sidekick Jonah Hill, to start his own shop, which grows into a huge operation. Along the way, he ditches one wife (Cristen Milioti, the mother from How I Met Your Mother) for another (newcomer Margot Robbie, doing a very believable Brooklyn accent,) while drawing the attention of an FBI agent (Kyle Chandler.)
Through it all there’s copious amounts of all matters of debauchery- drugs, hookers, orgies, you name it. And who knew people still did quaaludes in the ’90s? “Wolf of Wall Street” may very well be the most drug-and-sex-filled mainstream film from a major director in history, and is likely the hardest hard-R in the history of movie ratings. Do not, under any circumstances, bring your young kids (The guy sitting behind me at the screening did just that, arriving at this sex, violence and drug-filled movie with two toddlers in tow.)
One thing I give Scorsese credit for is that there’s an implication all throughout the film: That Wall Street crashed the economy in 2008 and these kinds of people- these greedy, debaucherous, drug-fueled, sociopathic monsters- were the ones responsible. But the film is subtle about this. It never gets political. Nobody ever blurts out the subtext, with the exception of one line where Belfort- at some point in the late ’90s- talks about overvalued tech stocks and credit-default swaps, specifically mentioning Lehman Brothers and inadvertently predicting the cause of the next two recessions.
DiCaprio is just outstanding, and once again uses his boyishness to convincingly play himself at several different ages. There are also various nods to his past roles; we see him both hosting a riotous party in a Long Island mansion, and on a boat that’s about to sink. The film has three great scenes, and the actor is at the center of all three: Two of them speeches to the employees and the third a back-and-forth with Chandler’s FBI investigator that brings to mind the famous Christopher Walken/Dennis Hopper scene in “True Romance”- the power and tone of the conversation shifts three or four different times.
HIll also shows the sort of range that I’ve never seen from him before; he was Oscar-nominated for “Moneyball” but he’s even better here. There are also quite a few memorable small performances, led by McConaughey, Chandler, P.J. Byrne, and Rob Reiner- who I didn’t even realize was still an actor- in a standout turn as Belfort’s dad. And Joanna Lumley- Edina from Absolutely Fabulous!- shines in a small role too.
It’s also just a beautifully-made film, and a great deal of fun, even though we know at all times that it’s about to get really, really dark and the fall is coming. It’s Scorsese’s longest film ever- at a shade under three hours- but it never feels cumbersome or boring for a second.
Yes, this movie will be misunderstood by some. Much like Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”- which is actually a hard-left critique of the financial industry and capitalism itself- there will be people in the coming years who see “The Wolf of Wall Street,” think it’s exciting, and decide on the strength of it to pursue a career in finance. Other viewers, I’m sure, will call Belfort a hero and inspiration and his wife a buzzkilling bitch, and not only because one late scene strikingly recalls one part of the endgame of Breaking Bad.
“Wolf of Wall Street” was delayed from its scheduled November opening, but even so, it was well worth the wait. This is Scorsese, at age 71, at the top of his game.