The Wolf of Wall Street is Martin Scorsese’s 23rd movie in almost 50 years and is easily the best in more than 20.
The movie is heavily based on a memoir by stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who founded the investment firm Stratton Oakmont in an abandoned Long Island garage, and spent much of the Nineties swindling his way to an enormous personal fortune.
Some of that money went towards funding the kind of social life that would make Richard Branson’s luxuriantly quaffed hair fall out, although the party finally came to an end in 1998, when Belfort was indicted by the FBI for securities fraud and money-laundering.
Scorsese shows us this, but he’s mostly concerned with Belfort’s fast and cynical route to the top, and the near-limitless supplies of girls and drugs he finds there. A typical week at Stratton Oakmont involves copious amounts of cocaine, naked marching bands, and a spectacle Belfort describes as a “stripper stampede”. As such, the movie stands accused of glamourising his crimes, ignoring his victims and failing to satisfy the audience’s need to see justice served.
Okay then, The Wolf of Wall Street is roaringly guilty on all counts. I wonder, though, if anyone who left the movie theatre simmering with frustration – coupled, perhaps, with a sense of guilt over being quite as titillated by Belfort’s antics as they were – stopped to wonder if that might have been exactly the reaction Scorsese was aiming for.
Crime thrillers don’t normally require much risk on the audience’s part: we invest pleasure in the bad guys’ schemes and scams, secure in the knowledge that the return will, in the end, be a morally satisfying one. The Wolf of Wall Street plays the market differently. It sells us the sleaze, and sells it hard, but it doesn’t pay out in the way we expect. The value of investments can go down as well as up.
In telling this archetypal American rise-and-fall story, Scorsese is casting back to the great Thirties gangster pictures, like Howard Hawks’s Scarface and William A Wellman’s The Public Enemy, about ambitious men who were impatient for power and wealth. Both of those films, incidentally, provoked moral outcries in their time for broadly similar reasons.
This gives the movie a darkly comic tone not usually found in Scorsese, but the material could hardly be treated any other way. A scene in which Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) silently pantomimes rough sex with a customer he is duping over the telephone is played for hollow laughs, and a sequence where a drug-addled Belfort drags himself, inch by inch, across a car park leads to a magnificent slapstick episode.
The movie’s wild energy is all due to on Scorsese’s meticulous attention to detail. He is walking a finite tightrope here similar to those he crossed in Goodfellas and Casino; glamourising without endorsing, trusting that our moral sense will compensate for his characters’ lack of one.
Belfort’s cronies, meanwhile, make for as vivid a chorus as either of those earlier movie boasted. There’s Margot Robbie as the lustful mistress, Jonah Hill as a faithful acolyte, Rob Reiner as Belfort’s permanently furious father, Joanna Lumley as a cut-glass money-launderer, Jean Dujardin, from The Artist, as an emotionless Swiss banker so reptilian in his nature that he creates tension in every scene he graces.
Scorsese’s last two movies, the psychological thriller Shutter Island and the children’s fantasy Hugo, felt like honourable side-projects, but this is a major, late-period work, as morbidly curious about the American condition as his very best. Money in that country is both a drug and a sacrament, and Belfort, the very epitome of material success, is by turns addict and preacher.
What I find mesmerising is Scorsese’s ability to create a perception of a character and get the audience backing them, just to knock them down and make us realise how wrong we were in the first instance. Most directors make movies because they are passionate about the project, or they want another pay check but Scorsese is in a whole other league. Akin to Tarantino, he is a true craftsman.
By Ruth Walker