Despite Martin Scorsese’s recent reputation as a thoroughly mainstream filmmaker whose work attracts mass praise and awards – only one of his last five cinematic releases hasn’t received Best Picture and Director nominations, and he won for The Departed in 2006 plus three Emmys in 2012 – he has always been a daring filmmaking. One whose choice of material and use of technique have frequently put him at odds with audiences and even critics. It’s that spirit of cinematic chutzpah that imbues his latest feature, The Wolf of Wall Street. Unfortunately in this case, all of his charismatic filmmaking and brash style are in service of a story that feels particularly rote for this iconic filmmaker.
If his last film, Hugo, shined a light on an all too neglected part of history, then The Wolf of Wall Street sadly shines yet another light on an all too often seen part of history. The story may be knew to Scorsese, but the mechanics sure aren’t. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordon Belfort, a stockbroker with stars (and moons and planets and galaxies) in his eyes, it’s a story that Scorsese has told before and that other filmmakers have told before. Perhaps it hasn’t been told quite as profanely, but I’m not sure that’s exactly a good thing. Was there a reason that despicable Wall Street cronies needed another movie about their scandalous behaviour? There’s certainly nothing to learn from this go around the block. At least not when told in this fashion.
While the film may at first instance recall the likes of Casino and Goodfellas, it’s actually the much-maligned musical New York, New York that springs to mind as its most logical cousin. Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy Doyle from that 163-minute implosion of style from 1977 shares much in common with DiCaprio’s Belfort. Except, in that case there was a propulsive energy that came from a director furiously trying to bring a distinct and unique vision to light. Wolf on the other hand feels about as close as Scorsese could get to a throw away. If you can ever have a three-hour, $100mil throw away. I struggle to recognise what his unique point of view or fresh insight is with the material. Did he have one?
Stylistic tics and flourishes lack the zing they have elsewhere and the entire character of Jordan Belfort feels like the safe option when there were many riskier selections that could have been made. It would make for an entirely different film, sure, but Margot Robbie is dynamite as Belfort’s second wife Naomi and yet to the film’s detriment Terence Winter’s screenplay is only partially interested her resulting in her vanishing for long periods of time and sapping the film of her vivacious, electric performance. Likewise the likes of Joanna Lumley as a cash-trafficking duchess, Kyle Chandler as an FBI agent with the smarts to go after such a cunning charmer, and Jean Dujardin as a European bank chief all provide fun and interesting counter-points to the main story, but instead decides to have a boat capsizing sequence for no other reason than for the absurd factor, which in a three-hour motion picture renders it superfluous.
Much has been said about the film’s so-called endorsement of its sex-and-drugs-riddled actions (I guess after Zero Dark Thirty and now this it’s becoming an annual to do). While I think it’s silly to suggest that a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese – himself a recovered drug addict – is endorsing the way Wolf’s characters steal from innocent people for their own gain of sex, drugs and power, I do think that the film indulges in their actions to an alarming degree. That may very well be “the point”, but I also got “the point” after the third orgy and the second Quaalude trip. The crimes and misdemeanours of Jordan and team of bro dudes lose any potential social commentary once they begin to get repeated over and over again, and by the third hour too many other story elements have been shoved aside for an extended scene where drugs make DiCaprio replicate the symptoms of cerebral palsy. Umm, funny, right? That the near-sold out audience I saw the film with were laughing uproariously throughout most of the film’s most boldly amoral moments suggests to me that any satire there was in the piece got lost. Much like many said the message of The Great Gatsby got lost amidst Baz Luhrmann’s predilection for rowdy party sequences and distracting musical cues, so too does Scorsese get lost amongst his repetitious house parties, coke-fuelled mile high orgies and early ’90s top 40 rock music.
Leonardo DiCaprio really is excellent, however. If anyone is to thank for keeping the film afloat as much as it is then it is he. Not that the film allows anybody else to really try. He’s looser than he’s been since Catch Me If You Can, and has a way of acting with his entire body that I’m unsure I’ve seen from him since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. There’s a fidgety nature that is embedded into the role’s DNA, but he takes the salacious element of the art and runs with it in a way that is surprising and, quite frankly, a relief. Too often DiCaprio falls into safe spots with his work, but not here and it’s his finest work yet from the five-film Scorsese and DiCaprio collaboration. Of course, DiCaprio may be acting with his body, but it’s the women with whom the screenplay is more interested body-wise. It’s actually a bit alarming how many of the female cast show off their entire bodies. Naturally, DiCaprio’s modestly is upheld thanks to some, shall we say, curious editing and Jonah Hill’s prosthetic penis isn’t worth much of a laugh if for no other reason than we know it’s a prosthetic.
With excellent costume and production design, The Wolf of Wall Street is an undeniable handsome film as Scorsese films always are, but I just worry that he’s perhaps grown accustomed to being handed large budget cheques. I’d love to see Scorsese reel back and force himself into something that feels urgent. Could he make another Bringing Out the Dead or The King of Comedy? Does he even want to? I wouldn’t hazard a guess, but for all his latest’s eye-popping wow factor, it’s a sadly disappointing creative achievement.