Well, someone’s got their mojo back. After a series of solid if unspectacular films, the diminutive Italian-American has recaptured the verve and energy of his 90’s output. The Wolf of Wall Street can be placed alongside Scorsese’s epic crime sagas Goodfellas and Casino, both in ambition and, more importantly, execution. What’s more, his long frustrating collaboration with heartthrob Di Caprio finally bears some fruit. So often looking like an ill conceived relationship of mutual flattery, we finally see the duo working to both their strengths.
The much discussed story is based on the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a self starting stock broker in 80’s New York. Arriving into the city as a starry eyed innocent, Belfort is soon inducted into the hedonistic ways of his charismatic superior (a show stealing Matthew McConaughey). When the company falls prey to the stock market crash, Belfort starts his own company selling dodgy deals to unassuming halfwits up and down the country. Soon the company begins to flourish and the money, drugs and, ahem, female companionship, start to flow.
Ably abetted by his trusted sidekick Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), Belfort juggles his burgeoning business with a troubled home life with his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) and a persistent FBI agent on his trail (Kyle Chandler). The film is structured a lot like Casino and Goodfellas. We have the auspicious beginnings, the ascent into success and hedonism and immorality, then the inglorious fall. A cynic might label it formulaic, but it works. I think as viewers we find a strange pleasure in seeing something constructed, even if what is being constructed is deeply troubling. Belfort’s ascent, with the wild parties, drugs and booze is utterly irresistible.
Keeping in mind the somewhat unfavourable view the public has of the banking system right now, this should go down like a sack of lead. Yet Scorsese’s film making prowess makes the journey outrageously entertaining. All the Scorsese tricks are here; the slow Caravaggio-esque pans across crowds and the raucous rock music on the soundtrack. Yet there is something even more psychedelic about this particular film. To really recreate the hazy comedown of Belfort’s drug years, Scorsese makes use of disjointed editing and gauzy visuals to authenticate the experience. There is a particularly joyous sequence in which Belfort consumes a melee of quaaludes, only to find he has to escape the FBI in his car.
Leonardo Di Caprio turns in one of his greatest performances yet as Belfort. Often he has looked misplaced in Scorsese’s films, a pretty boy trying to act like the tough guy. This role is much more in his domain; Belfort is charismatic, cocky and ultimately, wild. Belfort is much like Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas, someone riding their luck and unable to see the end game. Di Caprio manages to instil a charm and pathos in him that makes him hard to dislike. Jonah Hill is also superb as the eager assistant, loyal to the bone and with his own wild streak. He is a perfect comic foil.
There are a few slight niggles. As with many of these macho gangster rise and fall films, the female characters get completely waylaid. You can predict every beat of their relationship with from the off; the seduction, the kids, the descent and the divorce. Although it is loosely based on true events it feels completely cliched- does anyone really care about this sub pot? Probably not. The film ends with a beautifully cheeky moment as Belfort addresses a seminar of people wanting to learn how to become the next ‘Jordan Belfort’. It perfectly conveys the paradoxical nature of the film: one part of us condemns these shysters, and the other part revels in their degeneracy.