You’d think the 71 year-old guy whose last film was Hugo, a wondrous and resplendent family film, would settle down and rest on his laurels in the twilight of his career, but then you remember this is the same guy who made Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese is perhaps the greatest American filmmaker, someone whose wide-ranging oeuvre has spanned nearly four decades of raging bulls, ages of innocence, gangs of New York, and shutter islands, but when you come to think of when his auteurist touch nears perfection it is usually in his films about the sins of the American Dream. Goodfellas and Casino both prominently show the ugliest side of this theme, with gangsters and wise guys who shoot first and ask questions later, and while his new film The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t necessarily about the same kind of gangsters in those two films it’s a fitting ending to an unofficial trilogy about some really bad people.
The titular wolf is Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in what is definitely his best collaboration with Scorsese), who is introduced as a Wall Street greenhorn but soon creates his own intentionally-important-sounding company called Stratton-Oakmont and recruits others to help him master the not-so-legal ways of making a lot of money very quickly by defrauding clients with false info to pump up investment amounts. What follows is three hours worth of the most debaucherous satire of greed ever put to screen as Belfort’s excesses in drugs, women, and most of all more money get him into some deep and surprisingly hilarious trouble.
Scorsese handles it with his signature staccato pacing and voice-over as a biting way to make us marvel at the depravity by which Belfort and his buddies stampede headlong into a cocaine and Quaalude laden stupor. Jonah Hill, playing Belfort’s right hand man Donny Azoff, would approach being mere caricature in this regard if it weren’t for the subtle hints of utter insecurity peppered throughout his performance, though a scene that begins with a small aside that highlights the history of the Quaalude and then transitions to Hill in a slo-mo daze caused by the stuff adds to the film’s gleefully salacious spirit. All is outrageously well and green until the feds get wind of Stratton-Oakmont’s shady dealings, and despite the fact that the fun keeps going it doesn’t last for long.
Many lesser minds will think that Scorsese is somehow glorifying the behavior of the characters onscreen, but the sincerity that Scorsese expertly finds in the decadence only undermines the unacknowledged immorality of the people onscreen. Others have complained about the film’s length, yet Scorsese’s excessive story demands an appropriately excessive narrative flow that piles it all in there. Despite the film’s runtime, the film does tend to gloss over some significant complexities in the characters themselves, instead hinting at what truly drives the insatiable greed and desires as opposed to delving into them. But the film has an unparalleled energy, even for Scorsese. Like the cocaine propelling the characters forward, the film zooms forward, giving it a fundamental vitality that wouldn’t otherwise be found in films trying to ape Scorsese’s style.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a big movie, and a particularly reassuring one in terms of Scorsese’s career. There’s a sort of unofficial assumption that filmmakers as prolific as he is do not tend to age well, but as evidenced here he blows that thought right out of the water. I’d hesitate to say “He’s back” or anything like that because that presumes he was gone; he never left. What I would say is that I’m glad that he attempted to make The Wolf of Wall Street in the classic-Scorsese mode, and he wholeheartedly succeeded.