Although there’s far more to Martin Scorsese’s body of work than crime dramas, his name will probably be forever associated with classic movies like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Casino. But delving a deeper, Scorsese’s best films are also character studies at heart: accounts of flawed outsiders who stand and (usually) fall by their own neuroses.
So among such classic figures as Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Jake LaMotta and Henry Hill, we can now add Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, a figure who’s as maniacally driven, selfish and downright compelling as any Scorsese character you’d care to mention.
When the Wall Street crash of October 1989 leaves 20-something stock broker Belfort jobless and broke, he joins forces with a pearly-toothed go-getter named Donnie (Jonah Hill) to form a new trading firm in a disused garage. Initially fixed on selling dodgy stocks to gullible working class people (“I was selling garbage to garbage men and still making money hand over fist,” Belfort boasts), the company soon goes upmarket and takes aim at America’s richest one percent.
The result is a veritable torrent of cash, as Belfort and his growing team of oddball brokers begin fleecing the wealthy with shares that have little chance of accruing any meaningful value. But as the riches begin to pile up at Belfort’s feet – houses, helicopters, sports cars, yachts – the FBI begins to take an interest in the firm’s activities.
From The Wolf Of Wall Street’s opening scene, Scorsese openly references his own movies. There’s the narration, freeze-frame and juke box soundtrack of Goodfellas, and the soapy, lavish, multi-character sprawl of Casino. The intention is clear: this is another Scorsese crime drama, though the criminals here are of the white-collar, platinum credit card-flashing variety.
We’ve seen broker-based crime dramas before – Boiler Room, most obviously – but none have been made with the wild intensity of The Wolf Of Wall Street. As its protagonists gorge themselves on drink, drugs and sex, the film itself seems to be charged with a sense of narcotic mania. Characters engage in semi-improvised chatter, stumble senselessly in and out of cars or through entire scenes, and the story takes on a hallucinogenic intensity akin to Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
DiCaprio’s magnificent as Belfort, who’s seemingly impelled to consume everything around him with an insatiable appetite, whether it happens to be the affection of women (among them Margot Robbie’s glacially elegant Naomi), rare vintage drugs or unfeasibly large Long Island mansions. Everything is a slave to his vanity, and there is nothing that can’t be purchased – to put it in his own oddly poetic words, “Money doesn’t just buy you power – it also makes you a better person.”
Jonah Hill is a true wild card as Belfort’s cousin-marrying, crack-smoking, bulging-eyed right-hand man, putting in a demented performance that is entirely keeping with the heightened tone Scorsese’s going for – in place of the cold-blooded violence of Goodfellas, there’s blackly comic sleaze and rampant excess.
That excess extends to the running time, which runs to a slightly rambling three hours. Although Scorsese’s made lengthy films before (this one’s only two minutes longer than Casino, for example) The Wolf Of Wall Street seems a little laboured, with some sequences of partying and coke-snorting outstaying their welcome. But when Scorsese’s film hits its mark, it does so brilliantly: there are scenes here – including a belting cameo from Matthew McConaughey, worryingly thin from his role in Dallas Buyers Club – that are as funny and sharply conceived as any you’ll see this year.
The Wolf Of Wall Street’s black comedy is all the more cutting because of its punchline: Belfort may be a crook, but his methods and goals were little different from the bankers and brokers who brought the financial system to its knees in the 2007-08 financial crisis. Seemingly energised by this, Scorsese serves up an angry, urgent movie which sets out to provoke from the first frame to the last; his camera lingers over every detail, refusing to pass judgement on all the selfishness and consumption, but merely asking: are we sickened by Belfort’s lifestyle, or exhilarated by it?
It’s too early to say whether The Wolf Of Wall Street will be described in the same breath as Scorsese’s very best movies – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas – but it’s undoubtedly akin to those pieces of work. Like them, The Wolf Of Wall Street is a crime drama and a razor-sharp character study, this time shot through with a wide streak of bitter, mordant humour. It sees DiCaprio digging deep to bring out one of his career-best performances, and Scorsese exploring every inch of his sordid subject matter to deliver his best movie in well over a decade.
The Wolf Of Wall Street is out in UK cinemas on the 17th January 2014.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.