For fans of Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street will feel like a homecoming for Martin Scorsese. None of his work since that seminal gangster epic has so closely mirrored the arc and structure of that film, not even Casino, a film which shares numerous surface level similarities. Much like Goodfellas, Scorsese sweeps us off our feet with the glitz and glamour of a morally bankrupt world – and a protagonist to match – before showing us the harsh flipside of such a life.
From the very beginning, The Wolf of Wall Street pulses with frantic energy, offering a crash course, quite literally, into the world of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), a montage of filth and debauchery that includes drugs, hookers and helicopter crashes. From that point on, both DiCaprio and Scorsese are all in, throwing themselves into the film with enough confidence, exuberance and conviction as to make this their best effort together so far.
After the opening montage, the film doubles back to show Belfort’s beginnings in the world of stocks and shares. Starting off in a reputable Wall Street firm, the eager Belfort meets Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, fantastic), a coked-out veteran who teaches him the dark arts of the stock exchange, which Belfort puts to good use after the Wall Street crash in 1987 saw him back in Long Island and selling penny stocks. The wily Belfort quickly finds a way to gather some real money from these worthless penny stocks and strikes out on his own, forming a seemingly up front company with a professional name (Stratton Oakmont) that looks like the real deal. Before long, this pump-and-dump scheme, capitalising on the temporarily inflated price of largely worthless stocks, is earning Belfort and his cohorts millions and thrusting the company into the public eye.
Belfort operates almost like a cult leader, sucking in young, hungry brokers with the promise of extreme wealth and all the excess that goes along with it, building a testosterone and drug fuelled army of followers who hang on his every word. Chief among them is Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a wannabe-wasp eager for inclusion in Belfort’s world. Along for the ride are some like-minded deadbeats, including The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal as a moustachioed pill dealer and Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, hired to make sure things at the firm don’t get out of hand, though his advice is largely ignored.
Much like his fascination with the mob in Goodfellas, Scorsese is similarly hooked on the crude, corrupt world of Wall Street, gleefully documenting Belfort’s bad boy lifestyle in all its glory, revelling in the debauched goings on at Stratton Oakmont and indulging in extended scenes of characters riffing about anything and everything, including the terms of a contract for a midget tossing competition.
In fact, many of these go past their natural end point in a tighter edited film but that’s no accident. Scorsese and long-time editing collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker haven’t forgotten how to cut a scene, instead they just let us spend as much time in Belfort’s company as possible, letting us get caught up in the drug-fuelled whirlwind that is his life, to the point that we eventually become exhausted by the booze, the drugs, the women and the endless partying. It makes the contrast of Belfort’s inevitable crash all the more impactful, as well as a welcome respite from the never-ending decadence.
Charged with making the audience by into all of this is DiCaprio, who gives his most full throttle, charismatic turn to date. It’s crucial to the film that we are seduced by Belfort and DiCaprio’s charming performance makes sure we are, though we know we shouldn’t be. The supporting cast is a colourful bunch, headed up by a career-best Jonah Hill and relative newcomer Margot Robbie as Belfort’s trophy wife. The women are given very little to do here but Robbie makes a real impression.
The running time and murky morality – is Scorsese condemning his subject or celebrating him? – might put some off but The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most vibrant and downright entertaining film in decades, with scenes and characters that aren’t easily forgotten. A fun and filthy film that acts as a slamming indictment of the ‘greed is good’ culture that couldn’t be any more timely or vital.