It took the better part of five years, but the 2008 economic recession has finally come to roost in the cinema in a big way in 2013. Greed, excess, and decadence have coursed throughout this cinematic year whether we were witnessing lavish parties in the likes of The Great Gatsby, The Great Beauty, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Spring Breakers or watched the get rich quick schemes of idiot crumble like in American Hustle, Pain and Gain, Captain Phillips and The Bling Ring. In many ways I feel like we were all waiting for one film to rule them all, one satire to bind them, one epic to bring it all and in its greatness top them. Opening one week before the end of the year, Martin Scorsese just might have delivered exactly that movie: a comical biography called The Wolf of Wall Street. A film that lives up to everything you’d expect from a Martin Scorsese movie while simultaneously subverting all of them.
The film is told from the perspective of a real life white collar criminal named Jordan Belfort (Leonardo Di Caprio), a young man who was training to be a stock broker in the late 80s but only worked one day on Wall Street when he was sidelined by the 1987 stock market crash. Seeking to rebuild his career he took up residence at a Long Island penny-stock outfit, where he learned about how little regulation there was on penny stocks and about how much commission an individual broker received from selling them. With this knowledge he started his own firm called Stratton Oakmont, where he applied his Wall Street salesmanship to the Wild West that was the penny stock trade in order to make himself extremely wealthy. Wild decadence ruled the day at Stratton, where most of the employees were hyped up alpha males who indulged in hard drug use, illicit sex, and business practices that were far from legal. As Belfont’s wealth multiplied his business became less and less legit, and as the movie goes on you see this enterprise come closer and closer to disaster for all involved.
Jordan Belfort is a real (and largely unapologetic) criminal who guides the viewer through his rise and fall and all the dirty little details of his wrongdoings though extensive voice over. Does this sound like a familiar formula? Well it should, because it’s the same basic format that Scorsese used in the films Goodfellas and Casino. In fact I might go so far as to say that the three films form something of an unofficial trilogy in which the crime appears increasingly “legitimate” with each installment. Scorsese is perhaps making a statement upfront by giving Jordan Belfort the same treatment that he once gave Henry Hill and Sam Rothstein, essentially saying that the white collar criminals of the world are just as much gangsters as the hoodlums that Scorsese became famous for portraying. The only real difference between the two classes of criminals is that the crooks on Wall Street are a little less likely to straight up murder somebody than your traditional street criminal, but otherwise they’re every bit as sociopathic, lawless, and despicable.
However, that absence of violence is noteworthy, and it does result in The Wolf of Wall Street having a different tone from Scorsese’s other crime epics. Notably this one dips way further into straight on satire than those other two films, in fact I’d argue that it’s a full-on comedy. Not just any comedy either, in fact I’d say it’s an incredibly hilarious (albeit very dark) comedy that’s a lot more funny than most of the movies that claim to be nothing more than joke parades. However, almost all of the comedy is in tune with the film’s other themes. Most of the laughter is derived either from the characters’ general shamelessness or from their Caligula-esque partying and Hunter S. Thomson levels of drug use. The opening scene, for example, depicts the characters at an office party which involves tossing midgets in Velcro outfits at a felt target. Consider the type of mentality that would believe that such a celebration would be in any way appropriate and you’ll begin to understand the kind of people we’re dealing with here.
Leonardo Di Caprio always seems to be at his loosest and most energetic when working with Martin Scorsese, and here he also proves to be surprisingly adept with this comedic material. He more than holds his own while trading lines with comedy veterans like Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and Jean Dujardin. Let it also be known that Di Caprio wasn’t just cast here because Scorsese has developed such a rapport with him either; his youthful movie star qualities go a long way toward turning him into the kind of over-caffeinated salesman who could lead people into all sorts of craziness. When he addresses his employees at the office he does so with the zeal of a self-help guru or even a cult leader. That these people are actually following a sociopathic idiot just adds to the irony.
Scene to scene and line to line, The Wolf of Wall Street is almost an embarrassment of riches. Damn near every minute of it is packed with some kind of brilliant line, or interesting soundtrack choice, or unexpected cinematic decision. It’s no surprise to me that the original cut of the film was like five hours long and Scorsese had to struggle to bring it down to its current length; I’d be willing to bet that some of the material that Scorsese left on the cutting room floor was pure gold. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t think it was maybe a little longer than it needed to be and that it was starting to lose just a little bit of steam towards the end. Still, the movie is only a minute longer than Casino and I suspect that if it had been filled with horses and battles and whatnot its run time would not be raising that many eyebrows. Still, thinking of The Wolf of Wall Street as anything less than a triumph feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth. This is a hilarious and energetic movie which proves that Martin Scorsese has no plans of going out quietly in his old age.
**** out of Four