One would think older filmmakers lose their edge with age. They either lose their creativity or stop caring about the art and start cashing in checks to make big movies, selling them on their own name. So it’s damned surprising when you finish The Wolf of Wall Street and realize that the 71-year-old Martin Scorsese made it.
His latest is based off of a book by former Wall Street guy Jordan Belfort. It’s a rise and fall story at its most basic, following Belfort’s rise on Wall Street and his eventual downfall. But Scorsese directs it all with a kinetic energy and a verve that’s absolutely infectious and fun.
He’s retreading on some of the work he did with Goodfellas and Casino here, and they actually feel like they’re all part of some thematic trilogy. There’s a lot of voice over and breaking of the fourth wall and a dynamic camera flying all over the place. Everything is turned up to 11 though, and Scorsese’s gaze is beamed directly onto Wall Street rather than anything gangster related. But hell, everyone in this movie is kind of like a white collar gangster.
Like in Goodfellas, the people we follow are not good people. They take advantage of the dumb, and of the system, to make themselves rich beyond imagination. Scorsese hammers this wealth home, playing up the absolute excess of Belfort’s life. And it comes in three forms: drugs, sex and plain old luxury. It becomes so big and so gaudy that all of it becomes disgusting as the film goes on, and it starts grating on you like eating too many sweet things at once. In a word, the wealth on display here is absolutely obscene and exhausting, and it makes its point without Scorsese preaching to the audience.
In the process of amassing the obscene amount of wealth, the characters here are taking advantage of a system. That seems to be where Scorsese and his screenwriter Terence Winter are aiming their ire at. We see early a kindly Belfort who becomes corrupted by the corrupt in the system, and his later self is what comes out of the machinations. We see a world where profit is the only goal, not helping companies do great things or people rewarded for their work. It reminds us that, like people misinterpreting the perverted American Dream in Scarface, there are people (probably stockbrokers) who have internalized Gordan Gekko’s “Greed is good” mantra. There are no good characters here, only people corrupted by a system.
Those characters, by the way, are played by actors hitting all the notes perfectly. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a career best performance. So many of his performances feel like a movie star being an actor, and it’s wonderful to see him just shake loose and absolutely, completely disappear into a role like this. A role that requires him to explore his range in a way he really hasn’t before. He’s got to spar verbally, he’s got to be charming, he’s got to be overcome by greed and be kind and be warm and get so messed up on drugs that he’s completely gone. It also requires him to do a good amount of some of the best physical comedy put on screen in a while (fun fact: this movie is hilarious). I’m talking about what’s sure to be called The Lemmon Scene, and it’s hilarious.
Within the side characters, everyone is good. Matthew McConaughey shows up for a couple minutes and kills it, while Kyle Chandler is a good foil for DiCaprio’s Belfort. Jon Bernthal is also very good as this guy who does the dirty work for Jordan’s crew. And then there’s Jonah Hill, who takes another step in his dramatic actor career. If you wrote off Moneyball as a once-in-career-role for him, you might want to see him here. He’s absolutely fantastic, and him and Leo work so well off each other that their energy is palpable. I hope he gets more opportunities to show us what he’s capable of, because it only feels like he’s getting started. It might be time to start talking about him as one of the great working actors today.
This film also houses a revelation: Margot Robbie. Here, she’s able to stand toe-to-toe with a manic DiCaprio and demands the screen’s attention every time. For such a young actress, it’s amazingly impressive to go up against a guy like DiCapio and come out as a scene stealer. Also, her Jersey accent is so impressive it’s hard to believe she’s Australian.
The Wolf of Wall Street is three hours long, and while the movie is a fairly brisk three hours, I imagine some moviegoers will become antsy and not enjoy it as much.
Martin Scorsese is an absolute master, and he shows us again why he’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time with The Wolf of Wall Street. In a career filled with many masterpieces, it’s hard to imagine where this fits in at the present, but it’s easier to say it’s one of the best he’s made since Goodfellas.