Martin Scorsese’s three hour odyssey into the world of Wall Street excess isn’t the sort of film you might expect from the master filmmaker; one who’s brought us classics such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Often emotionally brutal, violent and breathtaking in their own right, Marty’s films have rarely shied away from controversy and always manage to make a ripple in the fabric that we call the film industry, becoming classics we couldn’t live without. So maybe it should come as little surprise that in a film considered a “comedy” by the Golden Globes, comes all the controversy and the sorts of gritty, cinematic grandeur that has made Scorsese such a highly regarded and successful director in his career spanning some six decades. In many ways, Wolf of Wall Street may just be his most daring film yet.
Starring Scorsese’s five-time collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio as Wall Street Tycoon / Successful Scam Artist Jordan Belfort, and based on the book of the same name by Belfort himself, Wolf serves to set itself up as more of a Citizen Kane than a Wall Street. It’s the story not of success or failure, but of what one man did in the face of both. It’s the story of ego at its worst and though DiCaprio is as enjoyable as Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards – and enjoys narrating our journey as much as the other – the film’s brilliance is in the camera’s lack of empathy for our leading man. He’s the knowing fool, suckered into a hole built by his own schemes and own ego. Yet we all see a bit of ourselves in him. He’s harmless. He’s fun. He’s the life of the party. He’s a drug addict. A sex addict. A money hungry fool whose missteps only make the journey more enjoyable for the viewer.
It’s genius in its approach because while one can chastise the filmmaker for ignoring the damage that Belfort and his troupe were doing to the average man and woman, it’s a story we’re all too familiar with. It’s on every week on A Current Affair and though Belfort’s successes should be criticized – it’s a topic that serves well to be treated with an open microscope, even in the exaggerated world created on screen. It’s a glamorous film that does nothing to glamourise the life of it’s lead, much as the hollow life of The Great Gatsby led us to a similar, though sadder conclusion, ultimately leaving the viewer or reader to answer the question: “was it all worth it?”
DiCaprio is brilliant, and so is Jonah Hill, who deserves all the praise he’s been receiving. Who would have thought it from the chubby kid from Superbad would end up a multiple Oscar nominee? Australia’s Margot Robbie plays her part as Belfort’s second wife with class, and the ensemble behind them all do wonders in making the film, sordid subjects and all, as enjoyable as it is to watch. I guess there’s something about an inevitable train wreck that we enjoy enduring in human nature. Maybe that’s part of the point. As much as we deplore his actions, we love sharing the journey. A real “YOLO” lifestyle if we’ve ever seen one. Did I just use YOLO in a review? I apologise. But you get my point.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Scorsese borrows a lot from the playbook of Orson Welles and his classic journey through the life of one of America’s most infamous (though fictional) newspaper tycoons in Citizen Kane. Both films detail the journey of a man from rags to riches, with mixed media running throughout – giving it somewhat of a documentary feel. Though Welles would never have been able to get away with the crass behaviour on screen that Scorcese does today (albeit with a R18+ rating in Australia), there is something reminiscent in the celebratory scenes of Kane to what we witness in Wold of Wall Street. From the marching bands at the dinner where he utters the famous line “You buy a bag of peanuts in this town, you get a song written about you”, to the shots of the frantic celebration at the height of the newspaper’s success. It’s not quite “throw a midget at a bullseye”, but we can see the worlds of Kane and Belfort aren’t far apart. Perhaps the former’s influence on the ideas of American grandeur and success are more ingrained in the idea of the American Dream than we’d care to admit.
And like Kane before it (at least in my books), I feel Wolf of Wall Street equates itself as the very definition of the cinematic experience. Pure, unadulterated, unapologetic escapism. It takes us to a less seen world and amplifies it to new extremes and new heights of elitist depravity. Beautifully shot and accompanied by an incredible soundtrack, laden with classic blues, a superb cast and infallible direction, Wolf of Wall Street is surely destined to be a classic of modern cinema. This is Scorsese – and DiCaprio for that matter – at his best.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Wolf of Wall Street opens nationally today, is rated R18+ and has a 3 hour duration.