The latest film from Martin Scorsese – who, at age 71, has pulled off a miracle - is a beast all of its own, the work of one of the greatest living directors who continues to re-invent himself. Remember, his last film was Hugo. Hugo. Scorsese, along with screenwriter Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), have drawn from the pages of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of the same name and created a provocative, high-octane film that places an audience on the lavish frontiers of Wall Street stock broking. The images explode off the cinema screen, which is barely able to contain the relentless craziness within.
The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young upstart broker who gains employment at a Wall Street firm in 1987. Following Black Monday, he is forced to reconsider his career path but his natural abilities lead him to an Investor Centre, sensationally dealing worthless penny stocks for high commissions with intimidating sales tactics. He eventually opens up a firm with his business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and trains a team of average-Joes into super brokers. Soon enough every youngster out of high school is flocking to Stratton Oakmont to be taken under Belfort’s wing and learn how to become a millionaire. The film also tracks Belfort’s tumultuous marriage with his trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie), his offshore money smuggling in Switzerland and his lifestyle of total debauchery with his fellow ‘Stratonites’.
Scorsese does a wonderful job of situating us within Belfort’s headspace but balances these personal addresses with a larger study of the lifestyle, which stems from a breeding ground for these money-obsessed sects. Scorsese utilizes some inventive storytelling touches, never losing sight of the self-congratulating angle of the narrative but having a noose ready at the same time. I came into this film having recently read Belfort’s memoir. I began to get worn down by his gloating recounts of his senseless debauchery, despite finding the insight into how he built the firm fascinating. I felt the novel was extremely indulgent and was skeptical about how Scorsese and Winter could craft an engaging tale from Belfort’s ramblings. The result is as an astonishing adaptation, the blueprint for that rare occasion where a film betters its source material.
It works as a relentlessly energetic (and hysterical) satire of the world of Wall Street trading, and a searing indictment of the gross excess and criminal behavior that Belfort and his partners felt they had the right to exploit. Much of Belfort’s most horrifying behaviour is actually left out of the film. It was surprisingly tame. What we get is pretty bonkers, but the restraint – yes, even with a gluttonous 179-minute runtime - benefited the film in my opinion.
There are some epic set pieces – you’ll know the ones – that will forever become synonymous with the film, but what I especially admired were Scorsese’s decision to let sequences play out at length. He never shortchanges his audience, leaving them both implicated yet informed. Consider Belfort’s lunch meeting with Mark Hanna (a scene-stealing, chest pumping Matthew McConaughey), a sequence that immerses us into this foreign world and the type of individuals operating within. In the novel this meeting is brief, but when blessed with a man of McConaughey’s talents I can understand why Scorsese wanted to take advantage. Jordan’s inspirational speeches to his floor of brokers, and the first meeting between Jordan and Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) are other examples of lengthy but gripping dialogue-driven sequences that further the narrative substantially without ever straying from relevance.
Describing DiCaprio’s work here is a tough thing to do indeed. He absolutely crushes it. I recently re-watched The Departed and declared that it features DiCaprio’s best work. I have reconsidered this, and am now thinking: How could he possibly top Wolf? His collaboration with Scorsese has never missed a beat. It was 12 years ago they first worked together (Gangs of New York) and while he still has his baby face – somehow he convincingly pulls off looking like a fresh 22-year-old – this is as high-octane as I have ever seen him. This is deep immersion into a dangerous and demanding role, and without his full-on commitment the film would have folded under the numbing barrage. DiCaprio conveys Belfort’s worst qualities – this guy shouldn’t be alive today – but when he is most charming you can’t help but admire him. There is an environment for this sort of business in America, and this is the story of one man with the skills to take advantage.
Scorsese’s use of music is never in contention, and it is once again sensational. Amongst Scorsese’s swirling choreography and furiously kinetic energy, at the core of it all is DiCaprio – a king presiding over the world he has built for himself. We get in too deep with Belfort; we’re implicated, and are entertained by it all, despite the hope presiding in our consciousness that we see this bastard fall. When he does, a sick feeling starts in the pit of our stomach, as if there is some sympathy there. It takes a great film to generate these sorts of emotions.
Hill is deliciously filthy as Belfort’s often-Quaaluded right-hand man Danny, while former Neighbours star Robbie is simply superb, shedding everything (from clothes to emotions) and holding her own against Leo in the dramatic scenes they share. They have not been receiving the recognition they deserve. Amongst the smaller roles and stunt cameos Kyle Chandler emerges as a surprising moral centre in the film, Rob Reiner is surprisingly effective as Belfort’s infuriated father and Joanna Lumley provides wonderfully tender moments of wisdom as Naomi’s Aunt Emma.
The Wolf of Wall Street has generated heated controversy since its release, which is an understandable (if overzealous) reaction given he film’s subject matter, but it will be interesting to see if it becomes an American classic. For me, this was an exhilarating experience. Scorsese is back at his debaucherous best with this ferocious study of greed and excess, mischief and mayhem with Leo DiCaprio in career-best form. You can’t take your eyes off him. It is an amazing performance.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.