Since 1990, Martin Scorsese’s career has been maddening. Up to that time, he was one of the great American directors of all time, producing masterpieces like Taxi Driver (USA 1976), Raging Bull (USA 1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (USA/Canada 1988), and of course Goodfellas (USA 1990) and rarely making a major misstep. Then, his career apotheosis, the film he seemed destined to make, still didn’t win him the Oscar that had eluded him through a two-decade career (and to make matters worse, he lost out to Kevin Costner of all people).
He spent the next two decades repeating the tricks that, when new, made him such a great filmmaker, with varying success, rarely traveling far beyond his favorite subjects and never attempting something new. Much of the time, he seemed interested in just repeating his past. Then, bizarrely, The Departed (USA/Hong Kong 2006), another one of his exorcises in re-creating Goodfellas (and one of his less successful efforts in so doing at that) finally won him that Oscar.
His next full-length non-documentary, Shutter Island (USA 2010) did not receive the critical praise he was used to but I considered it an excellent film and more importantly a sign that Scorsese was willing to try some new things, venturing into completely different thematic territory, a new subject, and even some new visual techniques. He followed that up with the acclaimed Hugo (USA 2011), an even larger departure from Scorsese’s history that seemed to signal that the Oscar had freed him up to be the great filmmaker he had once been.
Fresh off of two signs that he had finally progressed beyond the demon of Goodfellas losing the Oscar that had stalked him for two decades, I was excited to see what Scorsese did next. However, while The Wolf of Wall Street has received considerable praise, it has also been dogged by complaints that it was a repetition of Scorsese’s past, even drawing direct complaints that it was a retread of Goodfellas again. Unfortunately, the complaints were accurate, and Scorsese’s film was yet another competent-but-repetitious attempt to recreate Goodfellas, leaving me wondering why on earth anyone would watch this instead of just watching the earlier film again.
The point of this film is the ability of capitalism to justify horrible actions. It could easily begin with, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a Wall Street cheat.” It tells the story of Jordan Belfort, a middle class kid who finishes school wanting nothing but to be rich and so heads to Wall Street seeking his fortune as a stockbroker. He learns some of the ins and outs of the business from a disturbing and disgusting successful broker only to see his firm fall apart just as soon as he starts, then adopts the worst elements of that broker in creating a new, illegal stock firm and of course builds an empire of wealth, debauchery, and drugs before the FBI finally brings him down. All along the way, he justifies himself by pointing out the amount of money he has given to down-on-their-luck people needing the help and seeing himself as the more reasonable member of his partnership with Donnie Azoff. He repeatedly claims that his nonstop search for money and drugs is “the American way.”
The plot is a good enough way to make Scorsese’s point, but he is so interested in Belfort’s drug problems and debauchery that he spends fully half of the movie just establishing those elements again and again. He’s so busy showing us Belfort’s amusing attempt to drive himself home while high on Quaaludes that he makes no attempt to connect that scene to his overall point. He is so excited to show us the repeated orgies and various other debaucheries of Belfort’s firm that he doesn’t bother to explain somehow that Belfort’s dissatisfaction with his beautiful, sex-crazed wife is driven by his obsession with money and constant stimulation. It’s as though the film is more interested in pushing the envelope and getting as close as possible to an NC-17 rating than it is in making its point, which is why it ultimately fails.
For most of his more recent work, Scorsese has worked with cinematographer Robert Richardson, but this time he instead turned to Rodrigo Prieto, who has a long history of solid-if-unspectacular work in his past, and it’s difficult even to tell that there is a change. The film uses more of a full color palette throughout than Scorsese’s normal use of washed-out color that becomes more saturated as the film continues, but that is essentially the only difference from Scorsese’s offerings of the last two decades. The film also repeatedly attempts unusual shots to explain to the audience the altered perception of a high person, but they frankly consistently fall flat. Announcing that the Quaaludes are having their effect on a character and then having him move in slow motion just doesn’t do much for appreciating what they do, and makes that trickery completely unnecessary and almost laughable.
The acting is rather uneven, with an excellent lead performance supported by smaller performances that range from good to bad. DiCaprio is the only person who gets a lot to do, and he really knocks it out of the park, portraying his charismatic salesman as he progresses from an eager-to-please ingénue to an arrogant, selfish prick. The transformation he goes through is sudden, not subtle, but it is amazing seeing the ambitious but somewhat reserved young man adopt the mannerisms and activities of his mentor, and he has to portray widely varying emotions throughout. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill, a guy who we’re apparently supposed to think is hilarious while he is doing nothing and great anytime he’s not in a broad-as-can-be comedy (seriously, why have the critics all decided he’s brilliant?) is so bizarre and off-the-wall that it’s difficult to believe him even as an insane drug addict, and seems to have the same look on his face 90% of the time. Matthew McConaughey deserves some credit for an excellent cameo as Belfort’s first Wall Street mentor, a performance that seems more real than many of the supporting roles. Margot Robbie plays Belfort’s seductive wife every bit as greedy as her husband, albeit in a different way, with aplomb, though she doesn’t have too much to do.
As always, Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (I’ve never been clear on who should get the credit.) do a masterful job finding music to suit the film. That ability to use extant music as such a strong cue has long been one of Scorsese’s great strengths, and it was just as present in this film as it famously was in Goodfellas.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a decent film, but it’s really another attempt to retread the ground of Goodfellas that doesn’t do it as well and adds another 40 minutes of sex and nudity. It’s not a terrible way to spend a few hours, but you would be better off just watching Goodfellas again and spending a half-hour reading.
- I don’t know about everyone else, but where I grew up, a two-accountant family would not be “middle class.” Nor could “middle class” people afford Belford’s education.
- It’s interesting that Scorsese comes out with another re-tread of Goodfellas the same year that David O. Russell skewers it.
- The voice-over was annoying and unnecessary throughout the film. There are times when a voiceover fits well and times when it just gets overused, but this time was one when it could have been cut completely without losing a thing.
- There were a number of funny moments throughout the movie and some really good dialogue. It was more enjoyable than it was good.
- Interesting trivia: Robert Richardson, Scorsese’s usual cinematographer, also shot Wall Street (Oliver Stone, USA 1987). I wonder if that fact has something to do with Prieto shooting this one.