After a career spanning half a century, earning countless plaudits for films from the heat of ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull’ to the opulent romance of ‘The Age of Innocence’, Martin Scorsese could have been excused for resting on his laurels by now.
And, with his most recent outings a documentary about George Harrison and ‘Hugo’, it certainly looked as though he might have settled into a sentimental new chapter, telling stories about his favourite musical artists, celebrating the art of filmmaking itself, providing family fare that even his youngest children could watch.
But, then, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ confounds all of that, with Scorsese pulling out all the stops in this mind-boggling true story of just how one Jordan Belfort (played by a tireless Leonardo DiCaprio), a charming but average New York trader, worked out how to live a life of glamour, wealth, yachts and jets, even it meant pulling the wool over his investors’ eyes... and hiding the cash in European banks, and sinking his own yacht, and kissing Joanna Lumley(!)... in effect, a one-man morality tale of greed corrupting absolutely.
As co-star Margot Robbie (who in three short years has gone from Aussie TV ‘Neighbours’ resident to bona fide Hollywood A-lister) has rightly pointed out, a lot of media attention has been focused on the nudity, the drugs, the headless hedonism, and there certainly is a lot of that. The sight of Jonah Hill masturbating in the middle of a poolside party is one you can never un-see. But, the real story is the money…
Once Belfort makes his wealth relatively early on, it becomes about the ends to which he puts it. Along with the luxury comes the irresponsibility, the apparent invincibility, and the creeping sense that ‘a bit more’ will never be enough, and that this increasingly empty crusade can only end in tears, and indictment.
The film is flawed. Jonah Hill’s teeth verge on parody, and a few scenes duplicate a single moral point. But, in a film all about excess, that kind of makes sense.
There is many a nod to Scorsese’s former glory, with an almost palpable homage half-way through to Joe Pesci’s era-defining restaurant rant in ‘Goodfellas’.
But as the Guardian’s Xan Brooks pointed out, with so many other directors sampling Scorsese over the past three decades, the man himself should be allowed to dip into his quiver and pluck a suitable artistic arrow when the occasion demands. And ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ is, after all, proof that some of Scorsese’s greatest characters can be menacing and ruthless without ever having to raise a fist.
What gives this film its five stars, for me, is its energy, its thrusting, pulsating beat that means, in surprising three hours, it doesn’t drag once. This is a triumph in itself in an era when many a shorter film can leave you shifting in your cinema seat, thinking you just spotted an ending, but the director evidently disagreed.
As well as to Scorsese, the credit for this must go to Leonardo DiCaprio, through whom all of Scorsese’s whims are channelled, and who matches his director for commitment.
The now Oscar-nominated actor has been in training for this role for several years. He ran around cheekily for Spielberg (Catch Me if You Can), hid his self-doubt under layers of luxury for Baz (Great Gatsby), and exhibited his certifiable singlemindedness for Scorsese (The Aviator).
Now for his most attentive mentor Marty once more, he’s tirelessly pulled it all together as the backbone of this tall tale – smiling, charming, twitching, raging and despairing his way through Jordan Belfort’s rollercoaster existence.
'The Wolf of Wall Street' is in UK cinemas from Friday 17 January. Watch the trailer below...