The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't immediately appear to be the sort of film that gets discussed around the Digital Retribution traps. After all, its lineage is hardly of the exploitation/horror/shlock variety. It has a legendary, critically lauded director at the helm, boasts a great cast, was poised as a significant Oscar contender, and is, of all things, about the excesses of Wall Street brokers. There's nary a severed limb, monster or torture scene in sight.
|Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring:: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner
Screnplay: Terence Winter
But Wolf is also wonderfully, gleefully depraved and off-the-wall. It's full of drug-taking, sex, full-frontal nudity and more f and c words than Deadwood (apparently it's now the current record-holder for sweariest feature film). It's also funnier than most so-called comedies you're likely to see this year. And, honestly, despite it being up for numerous awards at the moment, it really is one of the least likely Oscar-bait movies in recent memory. It's pitched as a comedy, but it's really a drama-dy if you could call it that, as it goes to some pretty dark places at times. Just beware that "comedy" tag -- this isn't Anchorman 2, essentially. It's a glorious, cynical look at how fucked-up the American Dream can get when it goes unregulated.
The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the book of the same name, penned by stockbroker Jordan Belfort. It recounts his days as a Wall Street broker, and is essentially a rags-to-riches story. Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, begins his career in 1987 as a lowly cold-caller and is urged on to greater things by sleazy mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey). Belfort's career stalls as soon as it begins thanks to the Black Monday stock market crash, but he quickly rebounds when he realises he can get healthy commissions by pitching penny stocks to wealthy investors who wouldn't normally touch those duds with a barge pole. He recruits like-minded people around him, including his neighbour Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) who becomes his crooked business partner. His fame and wealth increases, and soon Belfort becomes known as the "Wolf of Wall Street". Raking in the money, Belfort forms brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont to keep the scams going and gets involved with women's shoe designer Steve Madden - here, he purchases the majority of Madden's company stock and artificially inflates the price prior to its stock market launch. This raises the attention of the FBI, notably straight-laced agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and before he knows it, Belfort is at risk of being indicted for money laundering and securities fraud.
If that plot summary sounded pretty dry, rest assured the film is anything but. Director Martin Scorsese obviously has nothing to prove at this stage in his career - the director of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, Casino, Mean Streets, Raging Bull and a bunch of other classics could film a seagull taking a shit and most viewers would lap it up. Yet here, at age 71, he's directing a film that's more exciting and entertaining than films made by directors less than half his age. Wolf is a long film - it's Scorsese's longest, beating Casino by one minute - yet it certainly doesn't feel like a three hour film. Admittedly, there are a handful of scenes that run on a little long, and the pacing does slacken here and there, but this is still a surprisingly brisk watch, feeling more relevant and vital than films such as the similarly-themed Boiler Room. Put that down to a few factors, one of which is a string of truly outrageous scenes which I would be irresponsible in spoiling, so let it be said that said scenes typically involve lots of drugs - the Quaalude scene, in particular, is already becoming something of a legendary scene.
Sure, if you were cynically-minded enough, you might see Wolf as essentially Goodfellas with better suits, minus the graphic violence. At times it feels like the third movie in a loose gangster trilogy that began with Goodfellas and continued with Casino. It has the voiceovers, with DiCaprio breaking the fourth wall a bunch of times to explain directly to us, or wave us away from, the finer details of his operation; the canny use of rock and pop music to emphasise or underscore a particular scene; a been-there-done-that story arc and familiar sense of pacing and paranoia, particularly when the feds get involved; the dialogue having an improvisational feel. But where Goodfellas and Casino were mostly grim if fascinating looks at organised crime, Wolf feels like the black sheep of the family, a piss-soaked and horny shaggy dog of a film. Instead of the brutal violence of Scorsese's gangster films, Wolf of Wall Street embraces the hedonistic lifestyle of its inhabitants, and because of this the film has been under fire in some sectors for its controversial content. Wolf is rated R18+ here in Australia but is the same film that's been shown across the globe, having been unfortunately censored by the MPAA to avoid an NC-17 rating. There's still plenty of strong stuff here, but you can probably guess where some of the cuts were made if you look closely enough. A bummer, really, especially considering that Scorsese doesn't do director's cuts, so this version is likely the only one we'll be seeing in cinemas or at home.
One of the most notable aspects of Wolf - other than its salacious content - is the fact that Scorsese and writer Terence Winter don't give us a morality play. The film doesn't give two shits about Jordan Belfort experiencing the highs and eventual lows of the financial games he plays before coming out at the end all the wiser for it, reflecting on his past mistakes and adjusting his life accordingly. No, he's an absolute shitheel from beginning to end. If we want to judge him, that's our choice, but the filmmakers make it clear that there'll be no sermonising here. Instead of lecturing, Wolf is content to show us in extravagant style what Jordan Belfort and his cronies did with all those millions of dollars. Basically, they snorted, drank and fucked their way through it all, treating the money as probably most people would in that situation where it was so easily gained and seen as dispensable because it wasn't theirs, where it belonged to those shmucks who, as Belfort explains, wouldn't know how to spend it as well as he could. And because this is a movie about excess, Wolf feels excessive - a three hour lesson in debauchery stuffed with gorgeous cars, women and yachts. Yet all this excess isn't tacked on, it actually feels integral to the plot.
Wolf is anchored by Leonardo DiCaprio's riotous lead performance where he truly lets loose in a way we've never seen before. It's easily his best performance in recent memory - he's charismatic and captivating despite the fact that he's playing such a greedy and salacious person. There are flashes of De Niro in his performance, but for the most part DiCaprio plays things wild and loose, careening from scene to scene like a slobbering, demented beast. It's like a combination of Johnny Depp's and Benicio Del Toro's performances from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But beneath this depravity is a swagger and an intelligence, showing you why he draws people to him with his magnetic charm. Jonah Hill provides fantastic support, playing up the grotesqueness of his jovial but occasionally belligerent Donny Azoff, complete with false teeth and Jew-fro and his scenes with DiCaprio rank as some of the best in the movie. But they're just the two most prominent fuck-ups in this cast of lunatics: there's Belfort's dad played by Rob Reiner who in one of the funniest scenes of the film goes apeshit because he misses an episode of The Equalizer thanks to a phone call and swears like David Mamet's love child; a brief appearance by Matthew McConaughey who cements his reputation as the comeback-kid du jour with a slimy turn as Belfort's mentor; Jean Dujardin as an equally-sleazy Swiss banker who hatches a plan with Belfort to bank his millions away from U.S. law enforcement; and then there's Belfort's close circle of sharks including toupee wearing fuck-up Nicky "Rugrat" Koskoff (P.J. Byrne). Aussie Margot Robbie also makes a strong impression as Belfort's trophy wife Naomi. There are also some nice supporting turns and cameos by Joanna Lumley, Shea Whigham and directors Spike Jonze and Jon Favreau.
The Wolf of Wall Street plays loose, fast and funny in a way that Scorsese hasn't really done before (After Hours comes closest) and it's a joy to see him and his actors having fun with the material. With a handful of scenes that deserve to become classics - among them, other than the infamous Quaaludes scene, are Belfort's yacht-based confrontation with FBI agent Denham, and his first introduction to future wife Naomi - this is probably Scorsese's strongest film since Gangs of New York or maybe even Casino. The extreme running time and debauched content will undoubtedly turn off some viewers, but it's their loss. Chalk this up as the finest Scorsese-DiCaprio collaboration to date, and further proof that the filmmaking duo have plenty of creative juice left in them.