For the past 40 years, Martin Scorsese has been living one of contemporary cinema’s most fruitful and surprising double lives. Alongside the wide-canvas American epics for which he’s best known—stories of men, often working-class, driven to corruption and worse by their monomaniacal desire for wealth, power and fame—there has been a parallel strand of films, from The Last Waltz to Hugo, dedicated to the art of performance, the magic of the movies, and the relationship between artist and audience. The two threads have met before, perhaps most notably in 1982’s brilliant The King of Comedy, but they’ve never been quite as entangled as they are in The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s 23rd narrative feature.
The wolf of the title, like Henry Hill in Goodfellas and Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta (or, for that matter, Hugo’s Georges Méliès), is inspired by a figure too relentlessly self-mythologizing to invent: Jordan Belfort, the stock swindler who founded and ran the infamous “boiler room” firm Stratton Oakmont until 1998, when he was arrested and charged with over 10 counts of money-laundering and securities fraud. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he’s a performer without an off switch, a hungry young guy with a cooped-up ego and a head full of get-rich-or-die-trying ambitions. For the movie’s first two hours, which are pitched somewhere between Hill’s tweaked-out police-helicopter hide-and-seek in Goodfellas and James Franco’s “look at my shit” monologue in Spring Breakers, Belfort gives us a proud, enthusiastic voiceover account of his many public and private offenses, including a decade’s worth of pill-popping and coke-snorting, several drunken helicopter maneuvers, a selection of ritualized debasements (a young sales associate is paid to have her head shaved; a hired dwarf gets hurled against a target in the middle of a rowdy office), three-ways, orgies, blackouts, mountains of cash, and at least one capsized yacht.
Belfort and his cronies—top among them his scarved-and-aviatored second-in-command, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill)—are far from the impeccably dressed mob men of Goodfellas or the charismatic urban warlords in Gangs of New York. These are loud, crude, boorish dudes bent on turning every inch of their lives into a showroom for their wealth. They have the same desperate need to show off as Scorsese’s former heroes, but none of the latter’s relative good taste. (And truth is skankier than fiction: Azoff’s real-life counterpart, refuting the movie’s charge that he and Belfort had a three-way with a 17-year old coworker, took the opportunity to boast that he’s “been with a zillion women.”) They’re not the kind of heroes that, as a director, you’d feel the need to dress up for, address in a more elevated tone, or dignify with any stylistic grace notes.
That turns out to be especially liberating for Scorsese, who, at 71, has made his noisiest, busiest, wildest movie in years, maybe ever. Nearly everything about The Wolf of Wall Street is giddily excessive: its three-hour runtime, its freeze-frames, its jump cuts, its incessant use of voiceover, its elaborate tracking shots, its FBI raid set to a pop-punk cover of “Mrs. Robinson,” its fetishistic slo-mo shots of vodka-drenched Quaaludes arcing through the air like lemon juice in a Red Lobster ad. But Scorsese has always been a deft pacer of action, and even at his most manic, he knows how to inject space into a film without killing the buzz. In an extended setpiece midway through Wolf, the film slows to a literal crawl: reduced to a quivering mass by a Quaalude overdose, Jordan struggles agonizingly to roll down the four steps of a country club entrance—to reach the car he’ll then use to drive home. (After which point the action spirals into a full-blown slapstick routine involving a stubborn phone cord, a glass table, a Popeye cartoon, and an ill-timed choking fit.)
In its last hour, the film sobers up. The same drunken antics and fractured bonds that Scorsese’s young, stupid brokers would previously have written off with a tossed-off wisecrack start landing instead with dead, lingering thuds. By the time we arrive at Belfort’s unexpectedly reflective final-act conversations with Donnie, his halfway collaboration with the feds, and his post-prison career revival as a motivational speaker, the fear that Scorsese has been shooting fish in a barrel starts to seem misplaced. Sure, the obligatory soapbox pronouncements on the perils of corruption and the emptiness of hedonism are there if you look for them, but there’s also a touching ambivalence on Scorsese’s part towards his hero: a mixture of pity, disdain, fascination, and identification.
The Wolf of Wall Street is DiCaprio’s show. (The rest of the cast consists, for the most part, of spot-on but one-note eccentrics like Matthew McConaughey’s spray-tanned, chest-thumping billionaire and Jean Dujardin’s unscrupulous Swiss banker.) Belfort is ultimately a fuller expansion of one of the actor’s signature personas: the earnest, charismatic young man desperately trying to conceal the fact that he’s still, deep down, a petulant kid. Scorsese is drawn to the way Belfort keeps insisting to the people around him that he’s worth their attention—the middle-aged married men who end up agreeing to buy thousands of shares of junk “penny stocks” on the basis of one impassioned pitch, the would-be brokers willing to drop their past lives, jobs, and families to make those pitches, and, last but not least, those of us willing to spend three hours watching Belfort rave to us in winning voiceover about how much he makes in an hour. For all its close thematic ties to Scorsese’s previous studies of young men with God complexes, The Wolf of Wall Street might be closer in spirit to the director’s concert films, with their blurring of the divide between the movie’s audience and the on-screen crowd. Like Dylan, Jagger, or the Band, DiCaprio is working himself into a sweat to seduce us—on one level, because that’s just what Belfort did to his cronies and victims; on another, because he wants our respect and awe, if not our love or affection.
In this respect, the key scene is Belfort’s extended motivational speech to the office near the film’s halfway point. It’s a masterful piece of rhetoric, with DiCaprio assuming a role somewhere between a hellfire Baptist preacher and a general gearing his troops up for battle. (“Is your gas bill overdue? Good! Pick up the phone, and start dialing!”) By the end, he has his listeners standing on desks thumping their chests and chanting rhythmically, like the crowd at a rock concert or the new converts at a camp meeting. Still, however understandable the crowd’s response might be (it’s a hell of a speech), there’s a limit to how much we can identify with these frenzied white-collar salesmen. The turning point doesn’t come until the movie’s final shot, in which we find ourselves face-to-face with an audience from which we can’t so easily distance ourselves. If only for a moment, the screen becomes a mirror.