The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from that freewheeling observer of American crime, Martin Scorsese, can be viewed as a worthy companion piece to the director’s 1990 gangster saga, Goodfellas. Both movies deal with criminal underworlds–Goodfellas with the Italian mafia, Wolf of Wall Street with our financial world’s sub-culture of sleazy stock traders. Both movies’ protagonists come at their respective milieus as outsiders with starry-eyed ambitions: While Henry Hill ingratiates himself into the local mafia so he can bask in the glories of gangsterdom, Wolf’s Jordan Belfort (Leornardo DiCaprio) aspires to become one of the conniving stock traders surrounding him when he’s hired at a successful Wall Street firm. Both Goodfellas and Wolf deal with the inner workings and relationships of crime syndicates and, running parallel to this, are themes of marriage, career, ambition and loyalties within their respective organizations. These movies together gives you the sum total of Scorsese’s stylistic brilliance and his barbed social consciousness.
Absorbing performances, stylistic wit, a lacerating and subversive sense of humor: The Wolf of Wall Street delivers all of these in spades, more so perhaps than Goodfellas. It belongs in the top half-dozen of the director’s films and could’ve been his best film ever if only the material had been shorn of 30 minutes of bulk. As it is, Scorsese drags out and indulges every possible story beat and subplot such that it belabors the whole enterprise. There are probably a few too many office orgies (we get the point after the first few that these guys are unchecked hedonists), several scenes stretch out far too long because Scorsese can’t bear to dispose of a punchline or gag. An awkward plot line involving an elderly British relation whom Belfort uses as a front for his offshore accounts feels tacked on and pointless. Had the director and screenwriter, Terence Winter (adapting Belfort’s memoir), taken another pass at their script with an eye for narrative economy, Wolf would’ve been the lean, mean machine befitting the predatory metaphor of its title.
It’s to the credit of the performers, to the energy of Scorsese’s direction and to the inherent appeal of this subject matter that Wolf is one of the year’s most entertaining films. Yes, the jokes are often in poor taste, the content is scandalous, out of control, over the top. The resulting comedy is on the order of last summer’s inappropriately hilarious post-apocalyptic laugh-fest This Is the End. This is This Is the End done up as a cautionary example of white-collar hubris. The two movies share the comic spirit of Jonah Hill, the selfless buffoon who’s never a met a joke he didn’t mind being the butt of, and that’s what makes him a crucial presence in cinematic lampoons of social archetypes.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a comedy about a bunch of clowns, really, who get away with terrible things. No, not a bunch of clowns, but a tribal clan as, every so often, Belfort will lead his trading floor through primitive rounds of whoops and howls that paint these Wall Street con-men (and -women) as cannibalistic savages. Some have wondered how it is that Belfort survived those years of defrauding investors, of whoring, partying and gluttonous drug-taking, but the more apt question is: How did he not harm even more people? Leonardo DiCpario delivers one of his finest performances in a role that’s at once tragic and farcical. At times, he’s channeling Ray Liotta (as Goodfellas’ Henry Hill). He’s got the attitude, the swagger, but this man is too unhinged to take seriously what with the helicopters, the yachts, the MTV-Spring Break lifestyle, the parade of strippers and prostitutes. His life is an orgy of excess; disturbing, yes, but certainly more fun to watch than poor Spider getting blown away in that seedy bar in Goodfellas.
Keeping up with DiCaprio is a crackerjack cast that includes the aforementioned Hill, sporting Chiclets-like teeth, as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s business partner, and the stunning Margot Robbie, who plays Belfort’s trophy wife, Naomi. As Henry Hill and his crew rose from trafficking in stolen cigarettes to robbing Lufthansa airlines, so Belfort, Azoff and friends rise from trading penny stocks to gullible postmen to opening a dazzlingly successful trade firm on Wall Street. As Henry and his wife Karen sparred over Henry’s affairs, so Belfort and Naomi bicker over the same. But, as in Goodfellas, the wives are soon on-board with their husbands’ back-room profiteering, leading to the long, delirious downward spiral of drug-addled insanity that follows. This is when Scorsese is in peak form: Depicting the alternately frightening and comical choices that his increasingly compromised characters make.
Functioning as their counterpoint here is FBI Agent Denham, played by the always-excellent Kyle Chandler. As the modest, middle-class law enforcer, Denham is the moral heart of the film. Scorsese is careful not to make Denham too square though; the man has regrets of giving up past dreams for a police career, and he wonders fleetingly if he’s truly the schmuck that Belfort makes him out to be. While riding home in a subway, Denham stares out at his fellow commuters: The hard-luck, but honest 99%, young and old, for whom he does what he does. In their pasts, Denham and Belfort had come to the same crossroads. But where Belfort chose selfish gains, Denham chose to ride the subway.
Remember the “May 11, 1980” sequence in Goodfellas that took audiences through that dizzying final day in Henry’s criminal life, when he has to accomplish several things (selling guns, preparing heroin, making the perfect tomato sauce) while a police chopper whizzes overhead? The problem with Wolf of Wall Street is that there are too many sequences pitched on that same frazzled wavelength; there are too many “May 11, 1980s” here. Thankfully, DiCaprio is that peculiar kind of star who can make even the most thoroughly dislikable characters likable. His confidence, charm and underlying sincerity wins our trust, so we don’t mind following him from one script indulgence to another. Likewise, Scorsese is too dazzling a filmmaker–Wolf of Wall Street’s comic playfulness, its endless invention recalls Fellini at his most daring– and this is his headiest whirl yet through his patented universe of compromised morality.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terence Winter
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Cristin Milioti, Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley