Call me a simple man, but I like my Scorsese films like I like my rap music: crime-related. As much as I appreciate how diverse career Martin Scorsese has been, and I really have enjoyed so much on his non-gangster fare (I feel that The King of Comedy is his most underrated masterpiece by a colossal margin), I still find myself wishing the director would focus more on his claim-to-fame, and I’m sure we’ve all been waiting for him to release another Goodfellas for over two decades now. Therefore, I became increasingly intrigued with following the progress of Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, when it was announced last year, as it certainly sounded like a return to the director’s comfort zone. While not a traditional gangster film in the least, the film, adapted from Jordan Belfort’s memoir, would be an epic story of crime, greed and corruption, all while set in New York, Scorsese’s beloved hometown. Now, a week after seeing the film, I have to say that The Wolf of Wall Street is a very curious entry in this year’s Oscar race. In my opinion, it’s not one of the best films of the year, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting, and it’s flaws actually add to that attraction.
Fictionalizing the real story of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street stock broker who committed numerous counts of fraud during the 90s. Beginning in 1986, when Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) was just starting out as a stock broker, only to find the job market in disarray after Black Monday. He goes on to work at a boiler room on Long Island that deals in penny stocks, where he comes across a very lucrative prospect: his talents allow him to persuade millionaires to invest money in worthless companies. Before long, he’s set up his own billion dollar company called Stratton Oakmont, and he’s handling drugs, women and insanity at a rate that would make Stephen Tyler gasp.
The best way I can describe the Wolf of Wall Street is this: It’s a three-hour sex-and-drug roller coaster that happens to have one helluva conductor. At first glance, I have to admit it can be jarring for someone to determine why Scorsese, now 71, would have agreed to direct this film. It’s a hyper-stylized film, that’s ultra-modern and ultra-slick in it’s story telling, plus the world of stock brokers is (allegedly) a much different world from the impoverished mean streets that supplied the fodder for Scorsese’s most recognizable work. Written by Boardwalk Empire’s creator Terrence Winter, one may even assume that Scorsese agreed to film The Wolf of Wall Street simply due to the working relationship the two men have from working on that show. Thing is, upon seeing the film does have plenty of Scorsese’s hall-marks, from vivid camera work, scintillating dialogue scenes, and that sense of attitude that could only come from a New Yorker.
One can see that Scorsese has mined a lot of his experience from his past films to shoot some of The Wolf of Wall Street’s best scenes. Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and Goodfellas all come to mind, particularly when Scorsese is giving Belfort a good lashing. A man raised on scripture and belief, it’s been clear throughout Scorsese’s career that he has no tolerance for sinners, and when he spreads his punishment on Belfort he makes the man look like both a fool, and a total disgrace. Simply put, this film might have the funniest, and nerve-ending drug scene that I’ve seen in a film since Trainspotting, and you can tell that Scorsese must have revered every moment of his shooting it. It truly is something to behold.
The thing is though, is that the script doesn’t seem entirely certain on whether this is a film about Belfort’s survival, or if it’s about his downfall. Winter’s decision to have the story iterated through Jordan Belfort’s eyes as he breaks the fourth wall could have come off as gimmicky, but instead it fits with the film’s playful sense, but perhaps a bit too much. It would have been beneficial for the film’s message about excess and corruption had it shown us the victims of Belfort’s crimes. The even graver sin comes from the film’s ending, which sure, it is accurate to reality, but I feel that Winter and Scorsese are talented enough that they could have concocted an ending that would have proven more provocative, and giving us more a sense that Belfort’s lifestyle is not something to emulate.
That said, this is a Scorsese film, which means that it doesn’t have good acting in it, it has great acting! It was certainly no surprise to see Scorsese cast Leonardo DiCaprio (AKA his latter day Robert DeNiro) in the lead again for this film, but we can be thankful that the collaboration between these two men continues to be so riveting. DiCaprio is slimy and surprising as Belfort, and it certainly enlightens one as to why DiCaprio was originally considered for Christian Bale’s role in American Psycho (they rejected him ultimately because they felt he was still a teen idol). Plenty of great work from the secondary characters too, as Kyle Chandler is in fine form with his type-cast, this time playing a straight-laced FBI agent trying to convict bad-guys the legal way, as well as a brief but all too memorable role played by the electrifying Matthew McConaughey, who acts as Belfast’s justification for why drugs and prostitutes should be part of his normal schedule. That said, the script’s material actually lends itself to some semi-disappointing performances from the other characters. Jonah Hill will also likely be getting a lot of attention for his latest dramatic role here, playing Belfort’s scuzzy buisness partner Donnie Azoff, but while the regularly-comedic actor does display the same fervor here that’s made him a scene stealer in films like Superbad, there’s also the fact that his character is plain unlikable, thanks to his vile behavior and uncouth demeanor. Also, when it comes to women in the film, it appears that Terrence Winter has made them shallow and indistinct for the same reason Aaron Sorkin did in The Social Network: Females are seen as prizes more than people for these characters.
Any movie that runs three-hours long runs the risk of coming off as exhausting and pretentious, but I feel The Wolf of Wall Street justifies it’s length, and actually for the very exact reasons. It’s a lopsided spectacle of decadence and repugnancy, that’s entertaining and hilarious despite it’s very visible flaws. Calling this film this generation’s Goodfellas is so inaccurate, that the we can only be explained as the by product of wishful thinking. Actually, a far more realistic comparison is referring to this film as this generations Wall Street, another film’s that’s ambitions were undone by a messy story, and a misplaced sense of morality. Flaws and all, Wolf of Wall Street is a must-see film for this holiday season. It’s not so bad it’s good…it’s too good to be bad!