starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Jean Dujardin
screenplay by Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort
directed by Martin Scorsese
by Angelo Muredda "For us, to live any other way was nuts," Ray Liotta's schnook turned gangster Henry Hill explains early on in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. With that, spoken over a montage of permed Italian men in tailored suits gorging themselves at an upscale restaurant, Hill at once launched a wave of lesser, faux-conflicted pictures about the swanky perks and ethical compromises of organized crime, and raised the fundamental moral question of Scorsese's latest, The Wolf of Wall Street. An unashamedly indulgent, ribald, and formally troubled biopic of Jordan Belfort, this unofficial Goodfellas follow-up likewise revolves around the kind of work that makes living like a pig in shit possible. His kinship to Hill aside, Belfort has had an unusually clear-sailing trajectory to garner the interest of a filmmaker who tends to be drawn to Catholic tales of excess followed by redemptive suffering. Belfort is still a born stockbroker and swindler, despite his working-class origins and federal inquiries and stints in rehab; the fact that he debuted on Wall Street the day of the crash and remains in demand as a guru well after the financial crisis of 2008 seems to give Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter pause, as well the astonishing survival rate of cockroaches should. What better way to make a film about such a man, Scorsese and Winter appear to have concluded, than to structure his story as a Roman orgy?
As played by a possessed Leonardo DiCaprio, in what is surely the most committed performance of his career (if not his best), Belfort resembles Hill in both his boyish, aw-shucks narration of bad deeds--conducted in the name of a system that conveniently complicates the perpetrator-victim dichotomy just enough that one might as well not feel bad about it--and his unimpeded class transcendence from blue-collar salesman to world-maker. But his unrepentant huckersterdom makes him a new and not especially sympathetic model for Scorsese, leagues away from the tortured souls DiCaprio himself has been inhabiting for him since he dawned a sombre half-beard in Gangs of New York. That comes as a surprise, partly because Belfort the man is still hawking his own wares--his same-named memoir is presently #12 on Amazon's list of best-selling biographies and memoirs, while DiCaprio recently recorded his own baffling sales pitch for Belfort's motivational seminars--but also because the greatest constant in Scorsese's career, beyond Thelma Schoonmaker's finely-tuned cutting, is his clear moral vision, which can't help but be blurred here.
Belfort's vision doesn't go so far. We hear him before we see him, care of his voiceover, delivered over images of a Ferrari speeding through traffic, following a Verhoevenesque ad for his once-untouchable brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont. (It's the first of many smart genre mash-ups that suggest Scorsese has unshackled himself from the tidiness of Hugo.) Apparently unsatisfied with the tame version of his life unspooling before us, Belfort corrects his account of the car's colour from red to white--which Scorsese obliges--and retroactively alerts us to the presence of his model wife (Margot Robbie) in the passenger seat, doing what dream wives in wolf stories do. And so, we realize, we are in the hands of a proper douchebag storyteller, the sort of guy who might storyboard his own memoir to maximize the rhetorical potential of simultaneously cautionary and titillating dialogue like, "I wasn't addicted to this" as we cut to cocaine, "but to this" as we push in on an extreme close-up of a hundred dollar bill.
Hammy as that introduction plays, it sets up a dynamic that makes The Wolf of Wall Street the most engaging and off-kilter thing Scorsese has done since Bringing Out the Dead, a biography that leaves us in the dark as to where the gasbag hero's influence ends and the filmmaker's interpretation begins. For much of the running time, it's hard to say what Scorsese thinks of Belfort's schemes, from his monstrous early shovelling of bad bonds onto poor schmucks to his later targeting of the already wealthy, the mechanics of which are too complicated for our narrator to even explain, despite our expectation that, as a good liberal and Catholic, Scorsese will eventually condemn him wholesale. The Wolf of Wall Street is most leaden, in fact, when that morality is most obvious, as in an unconscionably long take that surveys Belfort and gonzo number two Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) as they hold a straight-faced conference on the relative humanity or inhumanity of dwarves, a scene too clearly designed to first court our ostensible fondness for the physical comedy of disabled bodies, then to slap us on the wrist for it, as though we're as bad as Azoff.
That easy signifier of the artist's disconnection from the bacchanalia he's depicting stands out as false in a film that otherwise keeps its editorializing to a minimum--to the inevitable excitement of Wall Street and Wall Street-aspiring men everywhere. Such bros will especially get off on Belfort and company's entirely transactional relationship to women, who fill up the Stratton Oakmont offices like after-meal mints in a pub. To either his credit or his shame, Scorsese doesn't seem too concerned about whether his endless procession of drug-addled, sexually exploitative boiler-room set-pieces--the newspaper-office sequences from Citizen Kane cranked to eleven--will be received as celebration or critique. This is foremost an exercise in style, an attempt to capture some of the nauseating momentum of a life spent constantly moving to acquire what is constinually being spent and discarded.
In that regard, the picture is an unqualified success, allowing Scorsese to flex his comic muscles, atrophied by his recent turn as a prestige filmmaker. One would be hard-pressed to find a more tonally complex, high-wire sequence in Scorsese's DiCaprio years than the one in which Belfort and Azoff gather for a night of vintage Quaalude-swilling that culminates in a seriously endangered Lamborghini and the near-complete paralysis of Belfort's central nervous system. One risks sounding like an over-enthused Belfort as one waxes on the lunatic specifics of this episode (like, say, DiCaprio's inspired imitation of a flopping trout out of water, or the money shot of what the Lamborghini actually looks like by the end of the night versus what Belfort thinks it looks like), but that's arguably the point: the magic is in the execution of the grotesque spectacle, best observed without comment.
Ambivalence, though, is a tricky thing to sustain over a three-hour biography of an objectively horrible person, and Scorsese can't quite do it. The coda finds us holed up with Belfort in his second career as a motivational speaker, inviting a fresh crop of dumb recruits to sell him a pen he doesn't need, a trick we've already seen him pull off to great success with his first wave of hires. The final shot, which is curiously similar to the frontal tableau of desperate faces that closes out Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin, is perhaps too easily come by, a last-ditch effort to pre-empt the criticism that this film about stock fraud has no regard for its subject's countless victims. Here at last is the Roman purge after the binge, the Scorsesean turn to morality--if not for Belfort than at least for us, who have survived his excessive appetites and now could use a reminder that we don't need a new pen any more than Belfort's early marks needed his penny-stocks. A nice sentiment, yet a useless one, given that we're more than aware this wolf is still out there.