Dir: Martin Scorsese. US. 2013. 180mins

The Wolf Of Wall Street

Goodfellas without the guns, The Wolf Of Wall Street finds director Martin Scorsese once again essaying an epic on American corruption, except this time it’s in the land of stockbrokers instead of mobsters. Based on Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his time working on Wall Street, this dark comedy rubs our nose in its amoral tone for three hours, producing a luridly watchable, often funny tale of the rise and fall of an unscrupulous young broker in the 1980s and ‘90s.

The Wolf Of Wall Street feels like a rehash of one of Scorsese’s favourite themes — people’s willingness to embrace crime to attain the American dream — but here there’s more anger and ambiguity in the telling.

The Wolf Of Wall Street can’t entirely escape a feeling of familiarity — both because Scorsese has pursued familiar terrain before and because this is his fifth film with star Leonardo DiCaprio. But those shades of déjà vu don’t diminish from this movie’s sober recounting of the greedy, remorseless monsters who have cataclysmically altered the country’s (and the world’s) financial landscape.

Opening December 25 in the US, this Paramount offering boasts considerable star power thanks to DiCaprio, not to mention the cachet of Oscar-winner Scorsese behind the camera. The lengthy running time may hurt box office some, but high visibility and a glitzy storyline that parades shameless Wall Street excess should help considerably. Expect good reviews and awards play to contribute to sturdy theatrical grosses well into the new year.

DiCaprio plays Belfort, who got hooked on the adrenaline rush of working on Wall Street in his 20s, only to watch the firm where he was employed collapse during the stock market crash of 1987. Reinventing himself as a seller of seemingly insignificant penny stocks, Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a brokerage house that quickly becomes incredibly successful, essentially by conning unsophisticated clients into buying worthless stocks. But Belfort’s escalating wealth — which is accompanied by rampant drug use and a predilection for hookers — raises the suspicions of Denham (Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent who begins investigating Belfort’s shady business practices.  

Comparisons to Goodfellas are inevitable and appropriate: Both films are based on real people who serve as the narrator and main character in their stories, guiding us through their lawless worlds until their inevitable downfall. But where Goodfellas had harsher life-or-death stakes because of the violent, dangerous men at its centre, The Wolf Of Wall Street is pitched as a satire, revelling in Belfort and his colleagues’ materialistic, alpha-male hedonism.

With very few women in sight, Stratton Oakmont is depicted as a nightmarish frat-house environment in which machismo dominates. (When we see females around the offices, they’re usually half-naked prostitutes servicing the men, and indeed Scorsese had to trim some of the film’s sexual content to avoid an NC-17 rating.)

Adapted from Belfort’s book by Terence Winter — who created the TV series Boardwalk Empire, which Scorsese executive produces — The Wolf Of Wall Street oversells its milieu’s rampant avarice. There’s a repetition in the movie’s mission to show us just how deplorable Belfort and his ilk were, bombarding the audience with scenes of his insane wealth and detestable behaviour. (To set the tone, the movie opens with him snorting cocaine off a hooker’s ass.) But this numbing effect may be part of Scorsese’s strategy: After three hours of film, which spans roughly 10 years, we feel as if we’ve been immersed in a sick lifestyle that’s cut off from the morals and realities of normal behaviour. The filmmakers don’t criticize this lifestyle, however — instead, they present Belfort’s worldview without commentary, trusting the viewer to recognise the bizarre, almost Fellini-esque excess on display.

In his previous collaborations with Scorsese, DiCaprio has often played tormented or troubled characters, and his portrayal of Belfort shows plenty of the darkness that was present in his performances from The Aviator and Shutter Island. With his jet-black hair and shark-like intensity, Belfort might be compensating for some great pain from his past, but the film never reveals what that might be, consciously eschewing any attempt at creating empathy for the character. Consequently, DiCaprio plays him as a soulless cretin utterly devoid of introspection or scruples.

The actor manages to make Belfort’s overconsumption and competitive fire bitterly funny on occasion. (An extended sequence where Belfort struggles with the after-effects of taking too many quaaludes is one of DiCaprio’s most impressive and hilarious moments as a performer.) Still, DiCaprio’s laser-like focus robs the character of extra dimensions, an artistic choice meant to suggest Belfort’s narrow-minded greed that nonetheless lacks the complexity of his best work with Scorsese.

Because The Wolf Of Wall Street is so much Belfort’s show, the supporting performances often aren’t given the space to really stand out. Nonetheless, Jonah Hill has a few good moments as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s second-in-command whose comically oversized teeth and generally awkward demeanour suggests a deeply unhappy man who needs financial success to compensate for a lack of confidence. In a small role, Matthew McConaughey plays an early mentor for Belfort, and it’s his cock-of-the-walk assurance that becomes a guiding light for Belfort throughout the rest of his Wall Street career. And as Belfort’s second wife Naomi, Margot Robbie has to grapple with what could be a one-note role as the gold-digging trophy wife. But while the part is underwritten, Robbie gives it some sass, portraying Naomi not as a victim of her husband’s frequent philandering and selfishness but, rather, a street-smart pragmatist who sees clearly how comprised their marriage was from the start.

In his recent films, Scorsese has shown a continued willingness to challenge himself, delving into psychological horror with Shutter Island and 3D family films that pay homage to the early days of cinema with Hugo. As a result, The Wolf Of Wall Street may seem like a return to the Scorsese of not just Goodfellas but also Casino. (As in those films, The Wolf Of Wall Street features wall-to-wall voiceover, a rags-to-riches-to-rags storyline and an insider-y look at a distinctly disreputable American ecosystem.)

Those stylistic echoes add credence to the notion that The Wolf Of Wall Street feels like a rehash of one of Scorsese’s favourite themes — people’s willingness to embrace crime to attain the American dream — but here there’s more anger and ambiguity in the telling. Though the film is set in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there’s no question that today’s Belforts are operating in similar ways, even if the financial assets and trickery are different. (Without ever stating it plainly, the movie clearly suggests that the Wall Street powerbrokers who helped orchestrate the 2008 financial meltdown share Belfort’s predatory mind-set.) Scorsese repeats his old cinematic tricks — choice vintage rock tracks on the soundtrack, bravura camera moves — but The Wolf Of Wall Street’s deceptively flashy exterior masks a bemused, almost despairing resignation that Wall Street gluttony and fraud won’t be going away any time soon. And, as an unexpectedly poignant final shot argues, the problem isn’t so much with the wolves as it is all of us who enable their crooked conduct.  

Production companies: Red Granite Pictures, Appian Way, Sikelia, EMJAG

US distribution: Paramount Pictures, www.paramount.com

Producers: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Executive producers: Alexandra Milchan, Rick Yorn, Irwin Winkler, Danny Dimbort, Joel Gotler, Georgia Kacandes

Screenplay: Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort

Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto

Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker

Production design: Bob Shaw

Website: www.thewolfofwallstreet.com

Main Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin