Martin Scorsese has been one of the most important film makers in cinema for almost half a century. Movies like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas have all been deservedly canonised as unimpeachable classics. So all of that hyperbole, combined with the growing reputation of his latest movie as one of his best in years, has made me just a little psyched over the last year or so. I must have watched various trailers for this thing five or six times a week for at least the last ten months. As I sat down in the cinema today, a sudden fear struck me that maybe I had built it up too much, that nothing could live up to what I wanted it to be. Then I proceeded to have my mind blown for the next here hours as I watched The Wolf of Wall Street.
It’s the mid to late 80s, and a young, wannabe share trader, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), is starting his first day in an actual Wall Street firm. Here, he learns from trading hot shot Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) that the key to success is all about making your clients think they’re rich on paper, while the traders are the ones who make the actual, liquid cash.
When his prestigious firm goes belly up, he ends up in a Long Island strip mall at a rinky dink firm run by Dwayne (Spike Jonze – Side note, everyone’s making a big deal about McConaughey’s cameo, and he deserves it, but I think Jonze might be even funnier and more memorable in his few minutes on screen). Here, Belfort learns the value of ‘penny stocks’. Named after their low value, they’re cheap sounding to working class investors, but extremely valuable in unregulated commissions to brokers.
Belfort combines his Wall Street experience with the penny stock world to build a new kind of brokerage. One that grows so fast, that in just a year or two, he has hundreds of employees, a huge office, millions of dollars and a business partner, Jonah Hill’s Donnie Azoff.
Being that rich attracts two new people to Belfort’s life. Trophy wife Naomi, played by Margot Robbie, and FBI agent Patrick Denham, played by Kyle Chandler. The huge, but never convoluted cast, also includes Rob Reiner in the best role he’s had in decades, as Belfort’s father.
For Belfort and Azoff, success breeds excess, and for a good part of The Wolf of Wall Street’s three hour running time, we get to see the two partake in pretty much every drug and sex related indulgence you can think of. Even if you’ve already heard about the increasingly famous scene in which they take too many quaaludes, you have no idea what you’re in for. It’s funnier, scarier, more tragic and more brutal than any description could ever do justice,
DiCaprio and Hill are as amazing as everyone else has said. Margot Robbie is impressive and more than holds her own against them. All the supporting characters really make the most of the small amount of screen time they get when gasping for air underneath this huge cast and these huge performances. And of course, being a Scorsese picture, the music is great. I never thought I’d hear punk supergroup and cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes on a Scorsese soundtrack, but as soon as I did, it make perfect sense.
But the real standout and what made me love this movie more than any other aspect, was Scrosese. At over 70, he’s managed to make one of the ballsiest, most exciting, most exhilarating movies I’ve seen in a very a long time. While I really like The Aviator, Shutter Island and Hugo, they almost felt like he had found a comfortable groove in which he could make great, but not game changing, movies for the rest of his life. But The Wolf of Wall Street shows Scorsese still has as much edge and guts as he did when he made Mean Streets 41 years ago.
But I can’t give one old dog all the credit without out recognising another, Scorsese’s long time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. She’s been cutting almost all of his movies since 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, and the energy she brings to this movie is kind of amazing. The over the top performance of DiCaprio, the hedonistic excess of everything these people do, the heightened scenes of drug excess. All of these could so easily have been too over the top, cartoony or try-hard-cool in the hands of any other editor. But Schoonmaker keeps it all together and makes you feel every amphetamine accelerated heartbeat.
The Wolf of Wall Street has copped two recurring criticisms. The first being that it’s too long. Most reviews with this opinion also go on to say all Scorsese had to do was cut two or three scenes from the ongoing cycle of orgy / drug binge / excess / orgy / drug binge / excess and it would have come in at a more manageable running time.
But for me, the three hours of constant reiterations of their indulgent lifestyle is kind of the point. To make sure we actually feel the ups and downs of this lifestyle, Scorsese makes us live this excess as an audience. Everything about Jordan Belfort is built on gluttony, knowing when he’s had too much than his good for him, than gorging on more.
Which leads to the second common criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street, that it somehow glorifies Belfort and never makes him pay for his actions. I don’t know what movie they were watching, but I never saw a single second that glorifies the life he’s living. Sure, he has money, women, cars and a luxury yacht, but none of it seems to give him genuine joy. He has the superficial, magazine ad version of everything, and the artificialness of it all makes sure Belfort never looks truly happy. He’s living a constant hell that becomes more and more inescapable with each dollar that he earns.
And as for the lack of punishment he’s made to face, I think that’s totally irrelevant. Jordan Belfort isn’t the villain of The Wolf of Wall Street. The villain is the financial system preached by McConaughey’s character. The system that lets someone like Belfort not only survive, but thrive. The system is the bad guy we should all hate at the end of this movie.
“And that’s the hardest part. Today everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. I’m an average nobody. Get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” – Henry Hill, Goodfellas.
“But in the end, I wound up right back where I started. I could still pick winners, and I could still make money for all kinds of people back home. And why mess up a good thing?” – Ace Rothstein, Casino.
The closing scene of The Wolf of Wall Street shows Scorsese’s version of Jordan Belfort to be a little bit of both. Like Henry, he’s an average schnook compared to his height. But like Ace, he can still pick a winner and sell useless crap to people who probably can’t afford it. But instead of penny stocks to housewives, he now sells buzz word bullshit to gullible wannabe salesman. And as long as people who see this asshole as aspirational are the only victims, why mess up a good thing?