Martin Scorsese is arguably the father of the modern day gangster movie. Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, perhaps even the period piece Gangs Of New York are enough evidence to prove that such is the case. In his latest film, Wolf Of Wall Street, Scorsese adds another gangster film to his oeuvre, but in this outing, the gangsters aren’t in Queens, Brooklyn, or Little Italy. They’re on Wall Street.
To an extent, one might be able to make the case that Wolf Of Wall Street, which is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a stockbrocker who made millions defrauding the public in the late 80s/early 90s, is a remaking of Goodfellas (The Real Wolf Of Wall Street). Violence and blood is replaced by wild sex and drug use. Guns are replaced by greenbacks and penny stocks. All the beats are here. The young bright-eyed newbie who desperately wants to join the gang, his innocence quickly vanishing as he gets caught up in corruption and debauchery, and then he receives his comeuppance. Scorsese provides many of his flourishes: whip pans, crash zooms, well-placed music cues. But this time around, his camera is more settled than usual, I suppose because what’s happening onscreen is so wild, the camera needs to stay still to capture it all. He also adds a substantial dose of comedy this go round and most of it is decidedly not politically correct. I knew I was in for a ride when in the first few minutes of the film, there’s a classic Scorsese freeze frame of a scene involving midget tossing. Then we get Leonardo DiCaprio as Belfort, breaking the fourth wall and delivering a Henry Hill-like monologue to the audience. At that moment, I knew I was about to see a master filmmaker in classic form. Only a master could deliver a three hour movie and have me craving more.
All the performances are impressive. DiCaprio is fantastic (as I write this, he’s just won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical Or Comedy–there were no music numbers, so it’s official, this movie’s a comedy??) as are Jonah Hill as his partner in crime, Rob Reiner as his father/accountant, Matthew McConaughey as his mentor–McConaughey doesn’t get a lot of time in the film, but his one scene is nearly as arresting as Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross walk-on. Unfortunately, to look at him, one would think he hasn’t fully recovered from his Dallas Buyer’s Club weight loss. There’s the stunning Margot Robbie, as Belfort’s wife, the Duchess of Bay Ridge, going toe to toe with DiCaprio in her first major motion picture. And she more than holds her own. And Kyle Chandler as FBI agent Patrick Denham has a scene with DiCaprio that’s nearly as electrifying in its subtlety as Pacino and DeNiro’s first onscreen meeting in Heat. I don’t recall Scorsese ever using the point of view of the law in any of his gangster/mob films, with the exception of The Departed. Given that this is a similar take on his mob films, I shouldn’t have expected any different here, but Kyle Chandler is so intense, it would’ve been nice to see him onscreen a little more.
It’s amazing to consider that Martin Scorsese, along with Woody Allen, both septuagenarians, released films last year that reveal them to be at the top of their game. Wolf Of Wall Street stands toe to toe with much of Scorsese’s catalogue. And considering how good this film is, how good all the performances are, I cannot for the life of me understand the backlash surrounding this film. Critics have claimed that Scorsese glorifies the excesses of Wall Street, disregards the innocent victims that were scammed and piles on gratuitous sex and drug use. My question is: how is that different from any of his other films which depicted the mob? Are we suggesting that seeing a hairpiece salesman get an icepick shoved into the back of his skull, or seeing a mob thug have his eye pop out while his head is crusheded in a vice is preferable to seeing people having wild sex? How often do we see innocent victims in Goodfellas or Casino? Do those films, which are unquestionably masterpieces, glorify crime? All the while I was watching WOWS, I felt that Jordan Belfort was pathetic, pitiful character and it was clear that his lifestyle could not be sustained. I felt the same way watching Henry Hill, Johnny Boy (Mean Streets), Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) and Sam Rothstein (Casino). These movies are meant to be told from a singular point of view, that of the perpetrators, the anti-heros. Whereas Ridley Scott chooses to intercut the narrative between the criminal and the lawman in American Gangster (which was a decent film), Scorsese, as he usually does, assumes we are aware of the victims of Wall Street during this period. We see them now as we recover the Great Recession. We know, or should know, that they exist. I suppose old school filmmakers like Scorsese expect us the audience to be intelligent enough to fill in the blanks ourselves. 4.5/5 reels