I’ve had a weird relationship with Scorcese films over the years. Most of the films that most people tout as his classics (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver) I absolutely hate. Cannot stand them. To me, they’re boring exercises in vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. It’s pretty much the way I feel about early Tarantino, as well. Then something weird happened. I started liking Scorcese films. They were getting closer and closer to the mark and then in 2011, he directed Shutter Island and Hugo, which were two of the best films of the year (the latter WAS the best film of the year). Since then I’ve been anticipating his films rather than dreading them and thinking maybe I should go back and give the more recent ones (The Departed, for example) another shot.The Wolf of Wall Street is very much Scorcese back to his roots, but instead of a film that’s just vulgar and violent and pointless, Scorcese uses Wolf to paint the excesses and absurdities that surrounded the disorganized crime that propped up the very economy of the American economy the last two decades as an absurdist comedy. In tone, it’s somewhat similar to American Hustle, but while Hustle is a better acting exhibition, Wolf is a better film and more adeptly succeeds in creating humor out of the true nonsense of the American way of life.
DiCaprio, Scorcese’s go-to actor in the way DeNiro was for so many years, teams with the director again to tell the true story of a broker whose first day after passing his Series 7 Exam was 1987’s Black Monday. Out of work and desperate to succeed, Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) finds a niche working with “penny stocks”. These are companies whose stock is literally worth pennies, but because of that, the commission for sales is 50%. Belfort built an entire machine hyping these worthless stocks and keeping his investors reinvesting their profits. That way the only real money was the money paid to him and his associates as commission and the money that was supposedly propping up the companies and, by extension, our economy existed entirely in spreadsheets and in the imaginations of the share holders.
Belfort partners with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), an absurd character whose teeth are so white they practically give off a radioactive sheen and serves as Belfort’s consigliere in their organized hurricane of excess. Pounding the phones, their firm’s associates create millions out of absolutely nothing and then party like the world is about to end…daily. Belfort’s appetite for women and drugs is astonishing. DiCaprio deserves an Oscar nomination for the inspirational speeches and cons he delivers throughout the film, but what really astounded me was a desperate Jordan trying to propel himself across a hotel lobby and into his car while on quaaludes. It’s a level of physical comedy that defies description. It’s a contortionist’s dance on the level of the best physical comedy from the likes of Dick Van Dyke and something I had no idea DiCaprio had in his repertoire of tricks.
Wolf, while a commentary on the fragility and obvious (to the public in hindsight) insanity of our economic system, serves best as a comedy. It’s astonishingly funny in parts and if Scorcese had kept a tighter reign on the pace of the film, this could have been a classic. At three full hours, though, it feels very long and loses a lot of the kinetic energy derived from the manic performances turned in by its economic warriors. Overall, though, this is a must-see film and another standout performance by DiCaprio, whose range and talent continue to increase. In a strong December, Wolf is another solid hit.