“Directors don’t get better as they get older,” Quentin Tarantino recently told Playboy. “Usually the worst films in their filmography are those last four at the end.” Well, consider The Wolf of Wall Street a hearty fuck you from Martin Scorsese, 71, to Tarantino. While the film isn’t among the old master’s best it’s a great movie, and you have to have a pretty fucking deep bench of masterpieces for a movie as excellent as Wolf of Wall Street to not count as one of your starting players.
This is a movie of such energy and excitement that its three hour running time is a blip, and it’s over before you even realize it got started. Other films this season are slightly shorter but painful, dreary endurance tests; you might want to jump right back on this ride and do it all over again once it’s over. The characters in The Wolf of Wall Street do a lot of quaaludes, but this is a cocaine movie through and through, and while Scorsese may have given up the white powder before many of you were born, here he’s blowing rails of the purest cinema, and it gives exactly the same world-conquering high, but with none of the New York, New York hangover.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not a film about how Jordan Belfort, a scam-artist scumbag stockbroker who took people for millions of dollars and broke most of the nation’s financial laws along the way, is a bad guy. It’s a film about how Jordan Belfort is just like everybody else on Wall Street, except possibly more so. One of the movie’s earliest scenes has Belfort starting his first day of work at a fancy, old school brokerage firm and going to lunch with one of the biggest traders on the floor (Matthew McConaughey in a performance that, over the course of a slight few minutes, bests most other cinematic performances this year). Over that lunch the trader, who bumps lines of coke and keeps the martinis coming at precisely timed intervals, explains the values of Wall Street: nobody knows what the fuck is going to happen on the stock exchange from day to day and a broker’s only job is to take money from the client’s pockets and put it in their own. This is the face of the traditional, legal stock exchange, and the only difference between it and what Belfort ends up doing is that it’s cloaked in the perceived legitimacy of old money.
The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t about one criminal, it’s about the criminal nature of capitalism, especially as embodied in the world of stock brokers, who create nothing except wealth for themselves. These men are all criminals, The Wolf of Wall Street says; this guy just happened to be nouveau riche enough get busted for it. And even then, getting busted doesn’t mean the same thing for people of this social strata as it does for the rest of us. What perhaps confuses those who find The Wolf of Wall Street immoral is that the movie doesn’t have a blazing anger running through it. Rather, the film is bemused and perhaps that's where we find the true moral high ground. Remember, Gordon Gekko is the BAD GUY in Wall Street, but his "Greed is good" bullshit was internalized by generations of stockbroker scumbags. It’s better to present your bad guy as a schmucky frat boy than a calculating Master of the Universe.
Leonardo DiCaprio gets that. There’s a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street where his Jordan Belfort, high beyond belief on ancient quaaludes, tries to get to his car and it is a scene of extended physical comedy brilliance. DiCaprio isn’t playing Belfort cool, he’s playing him as a guy who thinks he’s cool - or at least cooler than everybody else in the room. He’s gaudy new money, and DiCaprio digs deep into the show boat-y psyche of new money, the kind of guy who buys a crazy expensive Porsche while still living in the same crummy apartment. DiCaprio’s damn good enough that you actually kind of like Belfort; he’s so shamelessly breaking the law that there’s a sense of illicit complicity for the viewer. It’s fun. It’s wrong, but it’s fun.
DiCaprio, finally looking old enough to no longer be baby-faced, is the whirlwind that powers this movie. He is so engaged, so charismatic, so big, that he’s a special effect in his own right. DiCaprio balances the absurdity and the bravado and the pathos of Belfort perfectly, creating a whole character whose sole redeeming feature is that he’s maybe not a total dick to his friends until he really, really has to be.
He’s surrounded by a supporting cast of knock-out performers. Jonah Hill is next-level as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s right hand man and best friend. One of the themes of the film is the way that money allows you to reinvent yourself, and Donnie is reinventing himself from a Jew to a WASP. But the film also says that no matter how much you reinvent, what’s wrong with you is always there, wrong with you, and Donnie carries all of his problems and issues well into being a rich guy. Hill kills it, showing the ugly darkness that festers just underneath the party boy exterior. He gives the kind of performance that makes you realize twenty years from now newly minted film nerds will be surprised to discover that he was once exclusively a comedic actor (although he’s funny as hell here).
There’s not a lot of room for women in Jordan Belfort’s world; they’re commodities, literally traded around the office. That’s what makes Margot Robbie’s Naomi so spectacular; Robbie is battling for attention in every scene, and she often wins the fight. Her Lawn Guyland accent is extraordinary (I wish she had given Jennifer Lawrence pointers in American Hustle), and she’s simply fierce. Naomi is just as shallow and awful as all the men in the film (there’s only one character in Wolf who is truly noble, and he’s portrayed as essentially crushed under the heel of the system, forced to ride the subway while Belfort enjoys drunken helicopter trips), making the role truly equal.
Recently I had the luxury of seeing Casablanca on the big screen, and I was struck by how wonderful all the film’s dialogue was. It’s a film that is made up of funny and quotable lines, and we have lost that in recent decades thanks to a move towards cinematic naturalism. Screenwriter Terence Winter has made strides to get back to a place where a film’s dialogue serves not to only explain character and plot but to also be a joy unto itself; The Wolf of Wall Street is possibly the funniest movie of the year, and so much of that comes from the wit on the page. Winter wrote for The Sopranos and created Boardwalk Empire; I always suspected his first feature credit, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, didn’t speak to his true abilities. The Wolf of Wall Street proves it in spades.
The Wolf of Wall Street completes a trilogy for Scorsese, one that started in Goodfellas and continued in Casino. These films are aesthetically similar but they also work together to tell the story of the mainstreaming of greed and corruption. What begins as fully illegal business in Goodfellas morphs into something quasi-legal in Casino, and by the time we get to The Wolf of Wall Street it’s only sloppiness and pride that brings Jordan Belfort's largely legit shenanigans into the view of the law. It’s a fitting capper to this trilogy, a film as electric and as rich as those other two (I would actually rank it just behind Goodfellas). Yes, this is Scorsese working familiar ground - lightning editing, fourth wall breaks, needledrops all across the film, low-born people aspiring to higher stations by any means necessary - but this is his ground, his kingdom. Sometimes I think Martin Scorsese’s biggest flaw is that he makes creating masterpieces look so damn easy.